Orwell Was Right

Note: I wrote this before Edward Snowden, and when the world was more innocent, even post-9/11.  

Clandestine. That’s a word I don’t hear very often any more–a fabulous word with rather seedy, sinister undertones. Civil rights. That’s a phrase I don’t hear very often, either. I think there’s a correlation there.

You doubt me? Consider Chicago. The video surveillance system there is so massive that it’s reasonable to say that most people who are not in their homes (and maybe even then, depending on their windows), are probably under surveillance. The article that I linked to mentions a recent suicide victim whose last 20 minute drive through the city was recreated via a network of public and private video cams.

That bothers me. In real terms, that means citizens have lost the presumption of privacy. Heard of Big Brother? He’s watching, and there’s no outcry–we’re all surfing online, reading facebook status messages and giggling at YouTube videoes instead of decrying our lost privacy. Even the ACLU, which has extensive info on their site about data, internet and biometric privacy, seems oblivious to the intrusion of cameras as we run routine errands…or, yes, have clandestine meetings.

In 1992, actress Joan Collins sued Globe magazine because they had used a telephoto lens located on public property to take pictures of her on private property. The court found that her claim was valid under the intrusion tort, one of the legal ways the right to privacy is delineated. (This piece from the U Penn on celebrities and the right to privacy was fascinating…time for law school applications? Maybe….) The courts have ruled many times that celebrities and other famous people have less legal expectation of privacy; in other words, Sean Penn really doesn’t have the right to beat up photographers in public places if they are a reasonable distance from him and not physically threatening him.

But what about me? Supposing I’m heading to the store at 3 a.m. in my jammies–bra-less and bed head, driving carefully and not indulging in any of the seven deadly sins or breaking any of the ten commandments. Then, I get to the store, realize my purse and my money were still on the kitchen table. I never get out of my car, turning around and deciding that the 3 a.m. run for TP was not happening; we’d use paper towel till the sun rose. The whole time, I’m either on my property or in my property–my Honda–can a picture from a security cam show up on the front page of the newspaper? Even more interesting, can one taken on a cell phone by a student in the car next to mine at a stop light be circulated to all his contacts?

I used that article about Chicago in both my senior English class and my Advanced class last spring, and I was appalled. Even the more thoughtful students were enthusiastic about the spider web of cameras surrounding Chicago, and the cameras that are throughout Lima in places–including our school. The students believe they are in danger, and that the world–even their hometown–are scary places. Almost without exception, they believed they are safer with the cameras watching. Even a discussion about whether the cameras function as a deterrent or as a means for retribution didn’t shake their conviction that they are safer with cameras watching, just as looking at crime data for our city didn’t convince them that their presumption of danger was disproportionate. (No, I didn’t say all that in those words…it took a long, long time to express and discuss those concepts in language that was generally accessible. It’s summer. I get to use my native language.) The arguement that almost bothered me the most was, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, why does it matter if there are cameras?”

That’s missing the problem. That’s missing the erosion of civil liberties, and the escalating power of technology as it’s used with little wisdom or thought. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. That’s the concept that is too often lost in the name of progress–and I’m a techie, not a Luddite in the least. Ben Franklin said, “Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security.” Amen.