Sunday, April 21, 2013

Patriots Day and Persistent Surveillance

On July 7, 2005, a series of suicide bombing attacks rocked London’s public transportation system, killing 52 innocent people and injuring hundreds more.

On June 29, 2007, terrorists again set their sights on London, but failed in their dastardly scheme to detonate two car bombs outside two Haymarket nightclubs.

London is considered by some to be the most surveilled city in the world and in both cases its extensive surveillance camera network – numbering in the millions of devices – was cited as playing a key role in the investigations and understanding the who and how of the events. Following the 2007 attack, surveillance imagery was among the evidence used to help Scotland Yard quickly identify and capture the suspects.

As I observed at the time that fact was not missed by certain lawmakers in the United States. Within 48 hours there were calls for more surveillance on the streets of our own cities, paid for by taxpayer dollars, in the name of national security and to fight the so-called War on Terror.

Last week, terror once again struck U.S. soil when two homemade bombs detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three innocent people lost their lives and nearly 200 others were maimed or injured as a result of the explosions. Over the next five days Boston and much of the nation were gripped by the intense investigation to learn who was responsible and, once identified, the massive dragnet that shut down six cities and put nearly 4.5 million people in lockdown while local, state, federal, and military forces combed the community of Watertown where the two suspects were, in turn, killed and captured.

Once again surveillance imagery played a crucial role in the investigation and, once again, within 48 hours politicians were calling for more federal investments in more a more extensive surveillance network, including both fixed position cameras and those mounted on drones.

New York Representative Peter King is leading the charge on this cause, but for Mr. King and his peers I have one question: what would the presence of more cameras have accomplished following the events of April 15, 2013?

One thing is certain about that place on that day – the area was saturated with surveillance. Within hours of the bombing Boston police and the FBI asked anyone who recorded events in the area to send in their images, and the public responded with a deluge of camera phone footage and images, news camera footage and photography, and images from private surveillance systems operating within and the vicinity of businesses located near the crime scene. Some of those images proved instrumental in identifying the suspects and flushing them from their home in Cambridge where they were laying low and, according to Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, planning additional mayhem.

I am uncomfortable with the idea of pervasive government surveillance. Stated bluntly, despite statements of good intentions, I do not trust them with that power. The U.S. Constitution places limits on the ways in which our government can intrude on the lives and liberties of its citizenry, but that has no stopped well-meaning legislators from passing well-intended laws that have been abused by others with more sinister designs.

I think it is fitting to close this post with the same words I used in July of 2007.

I know this event will influence the ongoing liberty/security debate here in America. As a nation we're already paranoid about some future act of terror, and we're constantly being told that we need to fear this shadowy enemy called terrorism. If the events of this past weekend result in a stronger push for and greater acceptance of remote security camera networks, and an undermining of opposition to extensive DNA cataloging, it will not be welcome news.

Using fear as a means of achieving legislative change is poor public policy. Loss of liberty should never be tolerated by patriots.


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