Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The surveillance society takes off

You may be aware that the U.S. is patrolling the longest formerly-undefended border in the world with Predator drone aircraft.

In addition to cameras and surveillance equipment, Predators can also be armed with two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles or other munitions. No word on whether the ones cruising our border carry this kind of ordinance, yet.

Now, drone aircraft are being used by police departments in Texas, Colorado, Maryland, and Florida. The Texas cops used one recently for a drug bust. The unmanned airplanes are also being used for photographing accident scenes, searching for missing persons, and so on. Police must currently get FAA approval for flights, but by 2013 rules should be in place to allow routine flights up to 400 feet above ground level without such clearances.

Despite their obvious value to the authorities, all this makes me a bit uncomfortable. It seems the appetite for new and better ways to keep an eye on citizens knows no bounds. Even now, in most major cities, you are on some video screen or other most of the time as you go about your business in the downtown areas.

Almost all stores and shopping centres from Mac's Milk to the Eaton Centre have video cameras everywhere. All government buildings are blanketed with cameras. Airports are, of course, video intensive areas. Hotels have video surveillance in their corridors and public areas. Taxis, elevators, police cruisers, office buildings, parking garages, and even public toilets now feature video cameras. More and more cities are installing video cameras to monitor street activity.

In 1999, it was estimated that the average citizen of London, England, could expect to be "captured" by 300 video cameras each day. We assume that this number has only increased in the past dozen years. More recent estimates of the number of these cameras in the city range from 500,000 to 1.4 million.

Doesn't it all seem a bit spooky? The proponents of this stuff say that if we haven't done anything wrong, we have nothing to fear from all these hidden eyes. But privacy is unquestionably under assault on all sides, and we seem to be sleepwalking into a new world that is very different from the one we knew.

Should we just smile for the camera?


  1. What's the pay off? I haven't read about any great decrease in crime since we've all been under surveillance. Creepy.

  2. Good question. Maybe I'll look into that.