Volume 16, Issue 29 - July 17 - July 23, 2008

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Beneath These Cameras, Don’t Be Too Candid

2008 may be recalled as the year of the YouTube election, when politics was overtaken by video and, as a result, democracy seemed better off.

This year also may be remembered for the spread of video surveillance across the country, which has a meaning less clear for democracy.

You may have read this week about a handful of recently installed surveillance cameras on West Street in Annapolis and plans to install several dozen more in Maryland’s capital city.

These cameras and many others across the country are made possible by grants from the Department of Homeland Security, a post 9/11 cobbled together mega-agency that is reaching deeply into our lives. (Have you heard about Real ID?)

Surveillance cameras are nothing new; you’ve been videotaped since the 1980s in banks, convenience stores and places of commerce where you weren’t aware of it.

But watching these new cameras pop up — when you catch a look at the clandestine technology — is a little unnerving. On some, face-recognition software links a name to an image. Chicago is among the cities implementing a video surveillance network so advanced that it can be programmed to alert authorities when a vehicle sporting a designated license number passes by.

With satellites, you can theoretically keep an eye on anybody in the world.

Do we need all these cameras in Annapolis? Should officials place them wherever they like because they have the technology to do so? There’s a sound argument to be made for video surveillance in high-crime areas. But the trade-off threatens the privacy we hold so dear, as a God-given right guaranteed in our Constitution.

We hear intelligence veterans like Glenn Carle, who retired from the CIA last year, tell us that our political leaders have exaggerated terrorism’s dangers. “We have allowed the specter of that threat to distort our lives and take our treasure,” Carle, who specialized in assessing threats, wrote in The Washington Post of July 13.

We worry, too, because we don’t have a good track record when it comes to controlling our technologies, our weapons or our chemicals.

We also wonder this: Who’s watching the people who are watching us?

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