Strolling down the streets of Ybor City, a popular tourist area in Tampa, a well-dressed couple stops by an open doorway to watch a master cigar maker roll one the old-fashioned way. What they don't know is that someone is watching them too: the Tampa police. They've done nothing wrong, but a police officer sitting a few blocks away snaps close-up pictures of their faces anyway, using one of several dozen remote-control cameras mounted on poles overhead. The officer's computer then compares their faces with a database of wanted criminals to see if there's a match.
Scary or reassuring? The really odd part of Tampa's public safety "experiment" is that it might be both. It is most certainly a government intrusion, and it's clear there's no probable cause for randomly taking pictures of people as they do a little window shopping. But as government intrusions go, it's not a terribly inconvenient one, and this is, after all, a public space. What's more, the Tampa police use these cameras to help spot and prevent crime in progress too. So the question is, if you're strolling the streets of Ybor at night, would you feel safer knowing the cameras are watching, or would you feel somehow violated?
Before you answer, it's worth acknowledging that we make safety-versus-privacy compromises all the time. We routinely have our bags and persons searched at airports, without any probable cause, in the name of safer skies.
are occasionally and randomly stopped at roadside DUI checkpoints in the name of safer roads. And we get our pictures taken every time we use a cash machine or pop into a 7-Eleven.
Once in a while, as I learned recently, it gets even more intrusive. While I was out fishing with a couple of friends off the coast of Florida, our boat was targeted from the air by some good folks from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. They buzzed the boat a couple of times (we waved, not knowing that it's protocol to look guilty and speed up), then radioed to a waiting police craft that escorted us to a nearby dock. We got off; they got on. We got interviewed; they searched the boat (which, by the way, contained no fish either). About 30 minutes and a case of mistaken identity later, they let us go. Inconvenient? You bet. But I actually feel a little better knowing they're out there patrolling our waters, however little they may be denting the illicit drug trade.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.