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Outside editorial: Balancing privacy with security

Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2007

Millions of Americans are caught on cameras every day, mostly in retail stores and government buildings. Still, we are not photographed nearly as much as the residents of London. There, an elaborate network of closed-circuit video cameras capture life on London's streets and inside public spaces. The cameras have proven helpful, as when British investigators were able to identify the July 2005 subway bombers on film and then hunt down their accomplices. Cameras were of less use, however, in identifying the recent would-be London bombers.

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Ever since Sept. 11, the worldwide use of cameras has been on the rise. Civil libertarians are right to raise privacy concerns over the proliferation of cameras. However, few people give the growing use of cameras or their potential for invading privacy much thought. This may change, of course, the day that an unscrupulous videotape monitor posts film of an unsuspecting person's embarrassing moment on the Internet.

That said, cameras are a tool in the anti-terrorism arsenal, which means they are becoming a ubiquitous presence in our lives. But make no mistake, in this new Big Brother world, wherever people are being recorded on videotape they should be told about it on signs posted in plain sight.

Cameras' usefulness is limited at this stage, though new technological advances could change that. Closed-circuit cameras can spot a shoplifter in time for sharp-eyed store employees to nab the scofflaw. But the grainy footage of Mohamed Atta and his accomplices sailing through security at Logan International Airport that terrible September day is a reminder of what cameras can't do. They may deter crime and be useful in a post-attack investigation, but they can't deter a determined terrorist. Someone planning to blow himself up has nothing to lose by being videotaped.

Knowing this, researchers are working to give cameras more deterrence ability. New technology can program cameras to search for specific objects, such as an unattended piece of luggage or backpack, and even to seek out suspicious mannerisms in people. Here again, though, the technology poses privacy pitfalls. One man's eyebrows furrowed in thought could become another man's perception of furtiveness.

Where should a society that wants to remain open and respectful of individuals' privacy while also providing security draw the line?

Another unresolved issue is how to prevent surveillance videos from being misused. They could be used for blackmail or voyeurism, for example. As cameras record more of public life, those caught on film must demand that our leaders balance security with privacy rights.



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