Friday, August 19, 2011


Our local police charged a young man with possessing marijuana at a suburban train station. They learned of his crime via surveillance cameras that were purportedly installed in order to protect passengers and the station itself. I haven't seen the surveillance tapes, but it is almost a certainty that the man was alone in the station, because, except for the morning rush hour, there is hardly ever anyone in that station. Since the man was not charged with any other crime, he obviously was not damaging the station or a threat to passengers or anyone else. He was just there, smoking.

A couple of days earlier, I was in the park just down the road from that station, enjoying the outdoors. Along came a police officer on an all-terrain vehicle, dashing all over the park for no obvious purpose. Another officer was riding his motorcycle on the footpath through the park, also for no observable reason. The two officers kept buzzing around, making noise, using gasoline, pumping exhaust into the air, and generally creating a hazard to anyone who might be lying in the grass or taking a stroll.

Little objection was heard when it was announced that Chicago was going to add more surveillance cameras to the thousands that are watching people as they walk and shop and bank and ride buses and trains and try to enjoy themselves outdoors. No one seems to care anymore that we are quickly headed into a constant surveillance society, where there is no privacy. The refrain is that if you aren't doing anything wrong, you shouldn't be concerned that someone might be watching you. I disagree.

Where are kids supposed to court, if they can't stroll through the park without being leered at by some bored cop, and maybe watched online? Where are they to steal their first kiss, if there is a camera around every corner? What happens to romance if the whole world really is a stage?

Women's rights to have abortions were guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court as part of their right to privacy. Anti-abortion protesters have tried to intimidate women who seek abortions by taking their pictures as they enter abortion clinics. How much easier it will be for the anti-abortionists if the government does their surveillance for them. People who want to purchase birth-control pills or condoms face the same future.

What becomes of the right to political dissent if people can be surreptitiously followed by camera from a rally, onto a train, and right to their front steps? What hope is there of stopping police misconduct if the police can silently observe every meeting between a reporter and a government official who is critical of the police?

Once considered a paranoiac's fantasy, we have learned that our own government is already using satellites, robotic aircraft, cellphone taps, automobile GPS devices, and Internet snooping to track individuals and target them for arrest or assassination.

Of course, the early targets are those that the public has little sympathy for. Alleged terrorists, drug users in train stations, people crossing borders. But if the government can use all this technology to stop those crimes, why shouldn't it be able to use the same tools to spy on people in their own homes as they fill out fraudulent income tax returns? What is going to keep the police from silently panning the cameras in the parks in other directions, to look over the fences and into the bedrooms of people living near the parks? Why shouldn't the government be allowed to use the microphones in your telephone handsets to listen to everything you say in your home, just in case you are plotting something?

No, it is not just criminals who should be concerned about pervasive surveillance. Anyone who likes to enjoy the solitude of nature, anyone who wants to pull back the drapes and let the sunshine into their house, anyone who thinks that kids should occasionally be allowed to escape parental supervision so they can grow to maturity should feel nervous when they see a camera lens staring at them. And they should feel nervous when they don't see the camera, because it may be concealed.

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