Saturday, 18 February, 2006

Big Brother in Houston?

Houston's police chief wants to place surveillance cameras all over the city.  (Thanks to David Stafford for the link.)  The city is facing a shortage of police officers due to too many retirements and not enough new recruits.  They've also absorbed about 150,000 refugees from hurricane Katrina, most of whom have moved into apartment complexes in crime-ridden neighborhoods.  The city is looking for ways to combat the growing number of violent crimes.

The police chief proposed placing the cameras in apartment complexes, downtown streets, shopping malls, and even private residences.  The private residences thing is especially frightening:  "[I]f a homeowner requires repeated police response, it is reasonable to require camera surveillance of the property."  But quite honestly, government surveillance of the general public is a frightening thought.  It's one thing for a business owner to have security cameras on his property.  It's something else entirely to have a police agency monitoring those cameras for possible law violations.

Those who favor surveillance always trot out the argument that if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.  I used to hold that view.  And in a perfect world, perhaps I still might.  But the truth is that all of us do things that we'd rather not have publicized.  With widespread surveillance under central control, the potential for abuse is impossible to ignore.  It would be all too easy for the agency itself or an unscrupulous employee to use the system for nefarious purposes.

What purposes?  How about watching when people leave their apartments so that you can buglarize the place?  How about blackmail or public embarrassment?  Imagine somebody snapping a picture of the police chief picking his nose in the shopping mall and then plastering that picture all over the city.  How much would the councilman who voted for the cameras pay to prevent publication of a picture showing him walking arm-in-arm through the shopping mall with his mistress?  And no number of police calls is sufficient to justify placing a government surveillance camera in a private residence.  The potential for abuse of such a system is simply too great.

I usually disagree with the ACLU's position on issues, but they're dead right on this one:  the proposal is "radical and extreme."  It almost certainly would violate the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searchs.  I'm surprised that the police chief--a political animal--of any large city would propose such a thing.  The article doesn't say whether the City Council is actually giving the proposal serious consideration.  I would tend to doubt it.

I suspect that the current proposal in Houston will go nowhere, but I believe that similar proposals in other cities will begin to gain traction in the near future.  We've been giving up our freedoms in the name of "security" for decades now--usually without our consent.  This is just another step towards the totalitarian state towards which extremists on both sides of the political spectrum are working.  At some point, those of us in the middle will have to say "enough is enough," and take steps to regain the freedom from excessive government intervention that our Constitution was designed to guarantee.