Smile, You’re On Candid Camera

February 24, 2002

by John K. Bates

Quiz time. Who uttered the following words, concerning new video surveillance technology to be deployed in the “war against terrorism?”

  • “The next logical extension is into communities to aid our crime-fighting efforts.”

Were these words spoken by?

A) William Safire, national columnist and uber-privacy advocate?
B) Nadine Strossen, President of the ACLU?
C) John Ashcroft, United States Attorney General?
D) Your humble columnist?

The answer is none of the above. The quote ran in a recent Wall Street Journal article about a new video surveillance system being deployed in Washington, DC. The words are from Mr. Stephen Gaffigan, the project leader for the Washington Metropolitan Police Department. And what a system it is. When complete, it will beam high-quality digital photos of the people of Washington day and night into a centralized command center. Not only this, but selected images will be beamed into over 1,000 DC police cars. This of course is not enough. Mr. Gaffigan believes that the current project mandate of “preventing another terrorist attack” is just the beginning. Soon, the system will not only be fighting crime; it will also be used to monitor and protect businesses and others who enjoy the never-closed eye of Big Brother watching over their properties. It will also be able to link private systems, such as those in shopping malls and convenience stores, thus creating a very powerful network indeed. If Mr. Gaffigan is worried about civil liberties, he does not show it. “People in England have easily adapted to it,” he says. “There has not been an outcry about privacy there.” In other words, be patient. It will seem intrusive at first, but we will get used to it.

Thus Mr. Gaffigan unwittingly confirms what Mr. Safire, the ACLU, and many others (including your humble columnist) have been saying for some time. “Anti-terror” measures - and in particular mass video surveillance technologies and face-recognition software - are so powerful and useful that once they are installed few will be able to resist the temptation to expand their abilities. What is installed today to “prevent terror” will be expanded tomorrow for other “worthy” social causes. Promises made by politicians today will mean nothing to the politicians of tomorrow, especially when those promises limit the power of government. Once this infrastructure is in place, and once we have accepted the erosion of fundamental rights, it will be literally impossible to prevent the expansion of these systems. Our freedom to come and go as we please anonymously will cease to exist.

It will get worse. I recently had a couple of beers with a friend of mine who has a fairly high-level computer job with a sensitive government agency. He relayed one of the terror alerts they have received (the kind not generally reported to the public) where the FBI became alerted to a suspicious purchase at a Wal-Mart store. Apparently, someone bought several items which, when put together, could have been used to make numerous bombs. Somehow Wal-Mart’s checkout system flagged this, the company called the FBI, and the FBI pulled a store videotape to find out who had made the purchases. No arrests were made and as far as anyone knows, the man did nothing wrong. But the notice went out to selected agencies to be on the alert for a certain type of bomb and a certain type of person. The “anti-terror” effort was working as planned that day.

Think for a minute, however, about the implications of this story. Then combine this story with Washington’s surveillance plan. Let’s say that someone went to a Wal-Mart in suburban DC and purchased a hunting rifle. Someone, somewhere (or a computer) decides that no one in suburban Washington needs a gun that powerful, and so the purchase is instantly flagged. The man (or woman) is seen on camera in the store, and when he leaves the store, the “anti-terror” system tracks him. On the way, he pulls over and it looks to the cameras like he buys a bag of marijuana. Then he heads home. The police, watching it all, arrive at his house shortly thereafter, enter his house with a search warrant obtained electronically, and arrest him for possession of drugs. It’s an easy case; he has the pot on him. Another criminal caught, another victory for Mr. Gaffigan’s cameras and expanded-to-fight-crime “war on terrorism.”

The above story is fiction - for now. But considering that both technological pieces of the above fictitious story are either in place or in the process of being implemented, how long will it be before this fiction is a reality? More to the point, how long before every purchase, every trip, every transaction, and even every word uttered in public becomes fair game for the “anti-terror” and “anti-crime” police? If our purchases at Wal-Mart (and elsewhere) can be scrutinized to fight the “war on terror,” why can’t our words be equally scrutinized to achieve the same goal? If we give up legal right to privacy simply by going outside, do we not give up all our rights so long as we are fighting terror? And once we give up our rights in order to fight terror, do we not automatically and unequivocally give up those same rights to “fight crime” or perform any number of declared social goods? If rights are no longer absolute, or if they only exist so long as they do not get in the way of the “war on terror,” do they even exist at all? Or do they exist only at the whim of politicians and bureaucrats like Mr. Gaffigan?

Today, according to Mr. Gaffigan, crime fighting is “the next logical step.” But it certainly is not the last one. Anything from drug use to parking enforcement to jaywalking is fair game for these systems once they are in place. Anything that enhances government revenue, anything that provides for “safety,” or anything that “protects the children” will be hard to stop. Heck, these cameras could be very useful right up the road from Mr. Gaffigan in Frederick, MD, where smoking in public is banned. Imagine the smoking cops - with video displays in their cars - pursuing an illegal smoker through the streets of Frederick. Far fetched? Perhaps. But they also tell us these systems will only be used for security. And we now know that is not true.

The most disturbing part of the Journal’s article is Mr. Gaffigan’s reasoning behind his belief that we will all voluntarily give up our rights. Mr. Gaffigan says, with no irony whatsoever, “people in England have easily adapted to it.” Well, bully for them! King George, wherever he is, must be smiling wickedly. How ironic is it that the country whose oppressiveness 230 years ago drove our forefathers to declare freedom is now being used as a shining example of why we should give up that freedom? The oppression King George failed to accomplish is slowly and surely being accomplished by folks like Mr. Gaffigan, who believe our security is far more important than even the rights we define ourselves by. Quaint notions such as individual liberty mean nothing to the security-at-all-costs crowd. “September 11 must never happen again,” is their never-ending mantra, even if it costs us everything we ever stood for.

This must end. But sadly, in today’s era dumbed-down voters and poll-watching politicians, it is very likely that enough of the people will support this sort of intrusion to make it happen. President Bush, who consults polls before he does anything, will show no leadership and instead will go along with this zeitgeist. It will be up to the Supreme Court - and up to the lonely voices on what is today called the “extreme” right and left - to make the case that rights are either absolute or they do not exist at all. At this point, all we can do is pray that they make the right decision.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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