Candid Cameras

Does increased public safety justify technology's intrusions on personal privacy?

by Illustration by: Earl Holloway

We don't mind if human eyes watch us at street level, but it's creepy to be watched from above by electronic eyes.Illustration by: Earl Holloway

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.

We
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.

So before we get up in arms over Tampa's crime offensive, we need to put it in perspective. We're not always afforded probable cause before we're searched or snapped, and the reasonable suspicion threshold is often lowered in the name of the greater good. And let's admit that part of our nervousness about such surveillance is that it's electronic. If Tampa decided to put a police officer on every corner of Ybor City to scan each face that happened by, nobody would be protesting. Instead, they're using lifeless boxes with zoom lenses, and plenty of people are protesting. The fact is, we don't mind if properly deputized human eyes watch us at street level, but we find being watched from above by electronic eyes at least a tad creepy.

The Fourth Amendment safeguards us against unreasonable searches and seizures, and further says that Americans have the right to be "secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects," which would seem to extend our right to be left in peace beyond our front doors. The police say they're trying to make the streets safer for law-abiding citizens. Meanwhile, protesters are dragging Orwell out of the closet again, and the American Civil Liberties Union is involved, so a court battle seems likely.

Most of us are not so hardened in our positions. The Fourth Amendment has held up pretty well in meeting the challenges of a society our founding fathers would no longer recognize. And to say you know with any certainty what they envisioned for a planet that is becoming increasingly electronic is complete folly. Only this seems certain to me: As cameras and computers get smaller, the issues will get bigger.

But in the face of technologies like face recognition, I keep coming back to that single word: unreasonable. There may be no constitutional certainty about why a camera is OK in a cash machine but not OK in a courtyard, but I think there is a collective sense of reasonableness amongst us. It could well be that we don't think it's reasonable that the fairly narrow purpose of Tampa's elaborate system-matching faces with warrants-is worth the broad invasion of privacy it imposes. And if such a system engenders distance and distrust between the police and the community it protects, that may be reason enough to judge it unreasonable.

But I also suspect that keeping technology at arm's length comes with its own penalties. We may feel, and be, more vulnerable walking down our city's streets than we need to be. We may be asked to pay higher taxes for more police officers when we say no to electronic eyes. We may keep our children closer to home for protection, rather than privacy, if we don't fight the good fight against those who would hurt them-including, perhaps, a fugitive child molester who need not fear the cameras of public places.

Our technology grows more sophisticated. As it does so, our debate should too.