Editorial: State must balance privacy, security
Technology always outpaces the law, which by nature must proceed slowly, deliberately and with a respect for precedents that may date back centuries. That’s the case with the use of closed-circuit television cameras, camera-equipped surveillance drones and other snooping technology.
New Hampshire is a long way from London, where it’s estimated some 50,000 public and private video cameras record the public’s actions, or Chicago, which integrates the information from thousands of private and public security cameras in schools, on public transportation and above streets. But use of the cameras has grown, and their use in capturing the Boston Marathon bombers before they could do further damage will fuel a push to install more of them.
Before they become ubiquitous in New Hampshire, the Legislature and local governments should craft legislation designed to balance the desire in some cases and the right in others, to privacy with whatever security benefits the cameras provide.
Citizens have a First Amendment right, for example, to record police officers who are carrying out their duties in a public place because free speech includes the right to gather and disseminate information about government in action. But New Hampshire is one of a dozen states that requires that every party to a conversation consent to being recorded. Even not-so-smart phones can be discreetly used to photograph anyone. Their more advanced cousins can record and transmit sound and video images along with the precise time and geographic coordinates of the scene being recorded. Is the law knowingly or unknowingly making criminals of people or putting them at risk of a civil suit for damages?
In 2011, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the Dover police had a right to keep information about the location of its surveillance cameras and details of their operation secret. Is that what the public, which pays for both cameras and the police, wants?
Video cameras haven’t been installed at every intersection and in every alley. Bird or dragonfly-sized drones aren’t snapping photos of backyards yet. But even in peaceful New Hampshire, the oft-named safest state in the nation, the use of such surveillance technology by law enforcement, data collectors, retailers of personal information and the merely curious is proliferating. Some ground rules need to be set.
Who may gather what information and by what means? Who can legally view it and post it for others to view? How long may surveillance records be retained? For what purpose may they be used? No claim of public safety or homeland security deserves a free pass, which is the sort of thing that can happen in the aftermath of a horrific events like the Boston bombings.
The jury is out on whether surveillance cameras have much of a deterrent effect. The ones on Boylston Street and the hundreds if not thousands of cameras at the marathon’s finish line didn’t stop the Boston bombers. But they are a great tool to crack crimes once they’ve occurred. The surveillance of society is going to increase as the technology gets even more sophisticated. Computers may soon sift data from security cameras and match the faces they capture with driver’s license photos and other records to provide government with a real-time record of who is where when.
In George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984, Big Brother’s cameras watched everyone everywhere all the time. Today, according to London newspapers, Orwell’s Great Britain is home to more than 4 million closed-circuit security cameras, including more than two dozen erected within feet of what was once Orwell’s front door.
Is that a price worth paying for a promise of security?