Post Boston: Privacy advocates warn about coming tsunami of surveillance cameras

After Boston, there is a cry to increase surveillance cameras. But facial recognition technology didn't identify the bombing suspects. Privacy advocates warn that creating more of a surveillance society, further decreasing privacy, is not the answer.

In The Dangers of Surveillance, Neil Richards, law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, made a case for legally recognizing why surveillance is harmful. After what happened in Boston, Richards said, "There is going to be more of a push to have more cameras on the streets, and it will be difficult to resist that push. The difficult balance is to have them [cameras] there for extraordinary efforts such as what we've seen this week but not for us to live in an emergency situation all the time."

The "success of Boston surveillance" is being cited in St. Louis as validation "to link 150 surveillance cameras into a single security system." But Richards warned, "We have to carefully watch the watchers or we could end up with a level of public surveillance that nobody wants. The issue isn't that we don't want cameras but what kind of security state do we want and what privacy are we going to give up for it?"

Facial recognition technology "did not identify" the two bombing suspects, according to Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis. "The work was painstaking and mind-numbing: One agent watched the same segment of video 400 times." The Washington Post pointed out that facial recognition "technology came up empty even though both Tsarnaevs' images exist in official databases: Dzhokhar had a Massachusetts driver's license; the brothers had legally immigrated; and Tamerlan had been the subject of some FBI investigation."

According to the Washington Post, part of the reason law enforcement publicly released the surveillance images of the suspects was to counter the vigilante version of See Something, Say Something, to "limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet." Citizens were so eager to help that the FBI site was overwhelmed with 300,000 hits per minute, at times crashing when its servers were overloaded.

Investigators were concerned that if they didn't assert control over the release of the Tsarnaevs' photos, their manhunt would become a chaotic free-for-all, with news media cars and helicopters, as well as online vigilante detectives, competing with police in the chase to find the suspects. By stressing that all information had to flow to 911 and official investigators, the FBI hoped to cut off that freelance sleuthing and attend to public safety even as they searched for the brothers.

There are about 150 surveillance cameras operated by government entities in the Boston area. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said surveillance footage from the bombing shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev dropping his backpack and then calmly walking away from it before the bomb exploded. "It's pretty clear about his involvement and pretty chilling, frankly," Patrick said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

A flood of officials are calling for increased surveillance, including Rep. Peter King, former Homeland Security chairman, who said, "I do favor more cameras. They're a great law enforcement method and device. And again, it keeps us ahead of terrorists, who are constantly trying to kill us."

Yet EFF attorney Hanni Fakhoury said, "The only way to use these cameras to prevent crime is to have blanket surveillance, to have someone monitoring every intersection and nook and cranny, and that's where we have problems."

Immediately after the Boston tragedy, David Maynor, the CTO of Errata Security, warned, "If our current level of surveillance and personal intrusion did not stop this tragedy then nothing will. We must fight back by staying free."

Laura K. Donohue, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, told the Wall Street Journal:

"The U.S. has not just met London's standard, it has actually surpassed it," thanks to facial recognition and other technology. But American law doesn't yet provide clear limits on the use of such technology, because most of it is deployed in areas that are considered public space.

Alan Butler, an attorney with EPIC, added, "It's one thing to have private closed-circuit cameras and look at feeds after the fact. It's very different if you're talking about systems of cameras identifying and tracking people over time, all the time. Especially if you couple that with facial recognition and license-plate readers and databases."

"If you are not safe in your home and if you are not safe in the street, then your privacy becomes kind of a hollow concern," according to Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. "Law enforcement struggles daily with the balance between privacy and safety," Pasco told Politico. "Nobody is more mindful of it. But we're also mindful of the fact that technology moves at a warp speed and provides a unique opportunity to enhance public safety in a time when resources are strained and communications and transportations are so sophisticated. It's easier to be a criminal than a law-abiding citizen."

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, warned us to think long and hard about whether surveillance cameras could prevent a terrorist attack in an urban area, before "creating a fishbowl society of surveillance." Turley wrote on USA Today:

No one is seriously questioning the value of having increased surveillance and police at major events. That was already the case with the Boston Marathon. However, privacy is dying in the United States by a thousand papercuts from countless new laws and surveillance systems. Before we plunge ahead in creating a fishbowl society of surveillance, we might want to ask whether such new measures or devices will actually make us safer or just make us feel safer.

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