Commentary

Senator Lieberman Is Watching You

Senator Joe Lieberman, in the wake of last week’s terrorist attack on Glasgow’s airport and the foiled plots in London, has proposed expanding the use of surveillance cameras nationwide in the U.S. He cites the effective response of British law enforcement to the attacks, and believes that “we can do it without compromising anybody’s real privacy.” The senator’s intentions are noble, but his proposal is badly flawed.

Surveillance cameras do have forensic value that can help authorities catch suspects after crimes have already been committed. The problem with this is that, for obvious reasons, suicide attackers tend not to worry about being caught afterwards. Antiterrorism strategies should be geared towards prevention; that is how lives are saved. The U.K. contains over 4.2 million surveillance cameras — one for every 14 people — and the Glasgow attackers still eluded detection until it was too late. The only reason there were no fatalities was the attackers’ own amateurishness.

In a further blow to the perceived effectiveness of surveillance cameras, Clive Norris of the Sheffield University Centre for Criminological Research testified last year that researchers found that Glasgow crime did not decrease after cameras were installed city-wide. It actually increased by nine percent.

The senator’s proposal for stepping up surveillance has other problems besides ineffectiveness. Corruption could become an issue. This has already happened in a number of U.S. cities that have installed cameras at traffic intersections to deter drivers from running red lights.

Authorities in Lubbock, Texas, actually shortened the yellow lights at intersections where they had placed cameras. This increased the number of red light violations, which nicely padded the city’s revenues. Worse, traffic accidents at those intersections increased. The cameras actually made drivers less safe. The problem wasn’t fixed until an investigation by a local television station brought the matter to public attention. It is worth asking if cash-hungry governments can resist similar temptations with terrorism surveillance cameras.

There is also the threat of mission creep. Lubbock Mayor David Millers, who supports traffic cameras for safety reasons, acknowledged as such when he said “it’s also about the generation of revenue.” It would be naïve to believe that cameras set up solely for terrorism prevention would not also soon be used for other purposes.

Law enforcement would scratch and claw to use the cameras for more general surveillance. This has happened before, and it will happen again. To cite an example of one anti-terrorism tool that has already been co-opted for other purposes, provisions in the Patriot Act have been used in everything from drug cases to prosecuting organized crime. This ties directly into the privacy concerns that Sen. Lieberman believes would not be compromised.

U.K. residents are routinely filmed by as many as 300 cameras in a single day. Cameras are everywhere from public squares to public bathrooms. It is absurd to believe that the U.K. model that Sen. Lieberman wants to emulate does not violate privacy.

A policy should be judged by its costs and its benefits. A national network of terrorism surveillance cameras would benefit investigators after an attack. But the cost is too large to justify, especially since the cameras would not actually prevent attacks. The threats of corruption and mission creep coupled with serious privacy concerns tip the cost-benefit scale against the cameras. And this leaves aside the millions of dollars it would require to install and operate the cameras. Sen. Lieberman should reconsider his position.

Jim Harper is director of Information Policy Studies and the author of Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.