The article below appears in the current issue of City-Journal.org.
Will the civil libertarians please shut up now? If they had had their way, London’s public surveillance cameras would have been unplugged long ago, and the British police would not have quickly identified the 7/7 suicide bombers from their pictures in the King’s Cross and Luton train stations—a breakthrough crucial to tracking down other participants in the plot. The London attacks have exposed the privacy fanatics’ campaign against public cameras as folly; it is just a matter of time before reality crushes other civil libertarian excesses as well, including opposition to data mining and to immigration law enforcement.
Few crime-fighting technologies have inspired more hysterical rhetoric from privacy nuts than public cameras. Erecting a camera on a street corner where drugs are sold, say, has been portrayed as the stratagem of a totalitarian state intent on controlling a submissive public. And few anti-camera campaigners have matched the philosophical excesses of legal journalist and law professor Jeffrey Rosen. Rosen’s absurdities were penned after 9/11; they look even more embarrassing after 7/7.
Ironically, it was London’s recently vindicated camera network that had inspired Rosen’s flights of fancy. Rosen visited England in the weeks after 9/11 to report on the Orwellian nightmare that America risked replicating in an overreaction to the World Trade Center attacks. London has over half a million public cameras, according to the Wall Street Journal, the highest number anywhere. Rosen reported his findings in an October 2001 New York Times Magazine cover story and in his 2004 book, The Naked Crowd.
Rosen saw in England’s cameras less the heavy hand of a Gestapo or a Stasi and more the sophisticated stratagems of postmodern literary theory. Mimicking the French pseudo-historian Michel Foucault, Rosen charged that public cameras were “technologies of classification and exclusion.” As a “post-Marxist,” Foucault had left behind economics in favor of sexier topics like deviance and social control. Rosen’s take on cameras echoed Foucauldian obsessions. Public videos, said Rosen, are instruments of “social conformity. . . . They are ways of putting people in their place, of deciding who gets in and who stays out.”
This is trendy academic code for a much homelier reality—the reality, say, of a small business owner trying to protect his livelihood from shoplifters. Rosen was particularly incensed by Borders Books’ plan to install a face recognition system in its flagship Charing Cross store; the system would have recognized previously convicted Borders shoplifters. In Rosen’s view, this unjust system limited shoplifters’ freedom to reinvent themselves anew—in Rosen’s words, to “define and redefine their own reality.” Or, in less exalted language, to return to the scene of the crime undetected.
Besides shoplifters, what other courageous nonconformists do cameras seek to “classify and exclude?” Oh, terrorists, for one. London had erected a ring of cameras around its financial district in the 1990s after a string of Irish Republican Army bombings there. The strategy worked: the cameras had a measurable deterrent effect on the IRA’s campaign, the RAND Corporation’s Brian M. Jenkins recently told the New York Times.
But the toll of crime and terrorism are not the “far-reaching social costs” that Rosen worries about. Rather, this influential legal commentator frets about the loss of anti-authoritarian individualism that cameras induce. It is an article of faith among surveillance critics like Rosen, the ACLU’s Barry Steinhardt, and Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow that public videotaping produces crippling inhibitions in the public. Fearful of being filmed in all their glorious non-conformity, citizens will cower in their homes or venture into the public square only under constant behavioral self-censorship.
The idea that a society that has long defined the pinnacle of success as getting your picture on TV, where hordes of would-be exhibitionists vie to be humiliated on reality TV shows, where thousands of others erect video cameras in their homes to broadcast truly private behavior to millions on the Internet—the idea that such a publicity-ravenous society would care one iota about cameras on boulevards or in ATM facilities defies logic. But the privacy fanatics’ counterintuitive claim can be tested empirically. Are London girls any more inhibited about exposing vast swathes of midriff than girls in unsurveilled cities? Is foot traffic on Oxford Street less than one would expect from the population density? Did British streets empty upon the highly-publicized installation of cameras? These are all testable hypotheses; none of the privacy fear-mongers has suggested investigating them, much less done so; they know the results will expose their claims as fraudulent.
Ordinary people, you see, understand an elemental truth that continuously eludes the civil liberties lobby: public cameras only capture public behavior, behavior already observable by many more eyes than will ever watch a video feed from a nearby camera. In fact, the only people whom public cameras inhibit are criminals; they liberate the law-abiding public. Following the installation of seven video cameras in Los Angeles’s beleaguered MacArthur Park in 2004, the L.A.P.D. watched “in amazement” as crime plummeted, gangs, drug dealers, and pimps disappeared, and low-income families began returning to the park, reported the Los Angeles Times in October.
To be sure, London’s surveillance system did not deter the 7/7 attacks. It is difficult to think of any earthly measure that would deter a suicide bomber. But the ability to identify perpetrators within days of a terror event is the next best thing after prevention, especially when co-conspirators are still at large. London’s cameras provided an essential service to national security without any cost in civil liberties.
Don’t expect any second thoughts from the privacy lobby, however. Although Jeffrey Rosen has not been heard from after 7/7, a British privacy campaigner quoted in the Wall Street Journal remains stubbornly opposed to cameras. And other civil libertarian nostrums appear as comfortably sacrosanct after this latest attack as before. National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg fretted recently that advising transit riders to watch for suspicious behavior could lead to “racial profiling.”
But although the civil-libertarian crusaders are unchanged by this latest attack, their authority may not be so untouchable. A New York Times article on public cameras in American transit systems last week failed to quote a single privacy advocate on the terrible social repercussions of such surveillance, an omission almost unthinkable a month ago. The only public cameras that we need to unplug after 7/7 are those that the mainstream media once reliably trained on privacy doomsayers.