Here is the text of an op-ed I submitted to the Columbia Tribune about 2 weeks ago. They have not gotten back to me on whether or not they will publish it, but I think that it is worth reading so I’ll post it here. Key knowledge for people who don’t live in Columbia: Proposition 1 was an initiative to give the police chief the option of placing surveillance cameras downtown.
As a libertarian who identifies politically with Democrats, my initial feelings toward Proposition 1 were mixed. I have a deep-seated distrust of government surveillance, but in some respects I regard surveillance of any kind of public activity an unavoidable consequence of being in public. This takes on more meaning when you consider the leaps in portable surveillance technologies that have happened over the last decade that make surveillance by private citizens in public spaces inevitable.
Consider this. Almost everyone who walks on the street of Columbia has a cell phone with an embedded camera. A lot of these phones, particularly smartphones like Android or the Iphone, have embedded video cameras. These cameras are deployed ubiquitously by citizens recording events in their daily lives: the food they eat, the street performers they see, the accidents and crimes they witness. Citizens without training in journalism are now the most important asset we have in terms of breaking news. As an example, remember the plane that touched down in the Hudson last year. The first footage from the scene wasn’t captured by any government camera or any media on the scene, but rather by a man with his Iphone.
We live in a world where Google is driving cars wired with recording equipment down every road in America to capture pictures and video for Google Street View. This world also includes numerous ways to share information, both audio and video, easily and at practically no cost over the internet. Facebook is a good example of how pervasive social networking is and how easy it is to perform de facto surveillance on people in your social network.
More generally, surveillance technologies are extremely cheap and pervasive. I would hazard a guess that it might cost less than $10,000 to wire downtown Columbia with cheap video cameras. You would even be able to stream videos online live 24/7/365. It is not illegal (and impossible to regulate) the surveillance performed by private citizens, particularly those who own or access property located in Columbia.
The revolution in search also factors in. Google, Wolfram Alpha, and Bing all represent large-scale efforts to make all kinds of data instantly computable. I think that within a year or two we will be able to search in real time the media created by people as they go about their daily lives as the technologies that aggregate and compute data become cheaper and more available.
So this is my argument. Proposition 1 was a non-starter for me because I think it is true that in the next couple of years the availability and usability of surveillance technologies will be so pervasive that government surveillance is unnecessary and indeed irrelevant. I voted against Proposition 1 because I don’t see a need to uniquely grant government with these powers; citizens acting of their own free accord in their daily lives perform practically the same functions.
I also recommend this post on surveillance in New York City from Volokh Conspirator Stewart Baker which contains some related insights that I think function well as an extension to my argument.