The era of wholesale surveillance (OPINION)

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Dallas Hyland is a columnist for St. George News and blogs as The Amateur Broad Thinker. The opinions stated in this article are solely his own and not those of St. George News.

 The City of St. George announced this week the introduction of high definition surveillance video cameras at Town Square on Main Street. We are told St. George Police dispatchers will monitor the feed and footage will be archived for future use in investigations and the settling of criminal and civil disputes.

Reactions overall seem to be pretty standard with some feeling the measure ensures an increased level of safety for citizens while others maintain something quite the opposite.

But what is surprising here is the number of people who seem to be surprised by this latest addition to the world of surveillance here in St. George as well as across the country.

Surveillance cameras and monitoring systems have been proliferating around the country for years at an increasingly rapid rate as cost for these systems continues in a more affordable downward trend while the technology continues to improve to almost astounding levels. Pixel quality of images now border on better-than-real-life capability and storage capacities are now virtually unlimited.

According to Popular Mechanics, there are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras shooting some 4 billion hours of footage a week in this country alone.

Welcome to the era of wholesale surveillance.

It is an understatement to say that, chances are, if you left your home today and went about your daily routine here in town, you were recorded by a video surveillance system.

Grocery stores have them. So do bookstores. If you were stopped for a traffic violation, you were recorded. And don’t forget about the average citizen with a camera in their phone.

Your life, as you know it, is perpetually on display and is likely being recorded in more ways than you would imagine.

You did know this, right?

So why is this recent announcement about surveillance by St. George Police causing a stir?

Proponents for surveillance will maintain a straw man argument whereby if you are doing nothing wrong you have nothing to fear. Right?

Perhaps the answer to the question of unease about this lies in the simple recognition of human fallibility.

It would be virtually impossible, even with the most sophisticated cameras, to watch everyone at all times – which, by the way seems to be the aim here.

Most of the surveillance systems now have software capable of alerting overseers to suspicious events so that they are not required to physically watch everyone’s every move every minute of the day.

But let’s back up. Overseers? Is that what we are calling those who are on the other end of the camera? Because, if it is, then there is rightfully a very appropriate next question: Who oversees the overseers?

Who prevents these overseers from using footage collected and stored for one purpose from using it for something else?

Let’s keep this local here. Recently, a handful of armed robberies were committed in St. George by former St. George Police Officers. Did these officers have overseer capability at the time they were within the trusted ranks of the department? And furthermore, were these capabilities used at a later time to commit the crimes?

Do not misunderstand my intent in posing these and perhaps implying similar questions here. This is not at all to suggest that the police were aware of or at all culpable in the former officers’ decision to commit crimes.

But it bears relevance because what is being required of the citizen is to trust that those who are empowered with the job of overseeing are doing so with some measure of integrity; yet with the trust comes a measure of impunity, does it not? The simple truth is people are capable not only of making mistakes, but of abusing such trust.

The difficulty here is that the benefit of having irrefutable evidence such as video footage is obvious and it is hard to forgo using this technology because of its benefit.

But, what of liberty? What of privacy? How many steps removed from the right of facing and cross-examining an accuser can we take before due process is infringed upon or denied?

Who would take the stand in a prosecution deriving from such surveillance? The camera? The overseer? An “expert?”

What qualifies someone to be an overseer?

The use of these systems creates autonomy for the users with reasonably questionable accountability and leaves many open-ended possibilities for malice of intent.

As I have alluded to earlier, a few more cameras in town are hardly the issue; we should be well used to being monitored by now as citizens.

The question needs to be viewed with a broader lens, if you’ll pardon the pun. How much, if any, of this should be done at all?

I have questions, so should you?

See you out there.

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Copyright 2011 St. George News. This material may not be published or rewritten without written consent.

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