Child abuse video reveals how often we're on camera

They're so prevalent we don't even notice anymore. At the convenience store. The ATM. The entrance to the ballpark.

And mall parking lots.

So no one was surprised when a security camera caught Madelyne Gorman Toogood beating her 4-year-old daughter outside a northern Indiana department store. The televised images caused a public furor and the arrest of the mother. The pictures were so graphic that even her attorney admits she's guilty. Child-abuse prevention groups believe the publicity may help expose a long-hidden national tragedy.

But the episode also highlights another trend: the rise of surveillance in the modern world. From Tokyo to Tampa, cameras and other tracking technology are proliferating.

In some cases, they record wrongdoing, as they did in Indiana. But a thorough accounting of their consequences has yet to be done. Indeed, if society is supposed to have a say in how it balances freedom and order, individual rights and the public good, the debate has barely begun, sociologists say.

Among the questions to consider: In a wired world, how many secrets do we get to keep?

"Clearly, the technology requires attention to these issues in ways that we didn't have to before," says Gary T. Marx, professor emeritus of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. Some people ask, " 'What's the big deal, as long as you're doing the right thing?' But in fact, we don't set up our public policy simply in terms of pragmatism. In fact, we make it rather difficult for law enforcement to get its job done."

Ever since an amateur cameraman caught Los Angeles police beating Rodney King a decade ago, the camera has proved increasingly valuable to justice. Police increasingly tape interrogation-room confessions. The technology has gotten so cheap that even small stores now set up multiple cameras.

Surveillance experts suggest that the average American gets caught on tape many times a day. In the case of Ms. Toogood, who's living in Mishawaka, Ind., a security camera caught her beating her daughter in her Toyota sport-utility vehicle. Local police released the tape nearly a week after the incident, hoping someone might identify the mother. Toogood subsequently turned herself in.

The tape has returned to the fore a long-standing problem in the United States: child abuse. "It's not a surprise," says Chris Monaco, director of the Childhelp USA National Child Abuse Hotline. The organization averages 580 calls a day from the US and Canada. Every 10 seconds, a child somewhere gets abused, according to the organization, and three die each day from various forms of neglect and maltreatment.

The Toogood incident wasn't that surprising, adds Dr. Monaco. "The furor that it has raised across this country hopefully will have people taking a second look at this."

But the incident also raises troubling questions for some surveillance skeptics. For one thing, the technology sometimes ends up playing a much broader role than intended. If the Indiana parking-lot camera, presumably installed to stop car thieves, catches a child abuser instead, most people would probably cheer. But how far should the net widen, asks William Staples, a sociology professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and author of "Everyday Surveillance." "Does the camera shut off when it catches people caught in a romantic tryst in the parking lot?"

Another concern: Who controls the images? Sure, police legitimately use them to find suspects. But they could be used for blackmail or to keep someone from getting a job, Professor Marx points out.

Already, various Internet sites tout candid photos of people – from male athletes in the locker room to women in the mall – taken without their permission. Laws are only now being written that make such activity illegal.

Just last week, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that photographing or videotaping up women's skirts in public places didn't violate the state's prohibition against voyeurism. A state representative has vowed to close the loophole with a new bill.

Whether a person can be taped legally depends in large degree on where they are. "The guiding principle is whether the individual involved has a reasonable expectation of privacy," says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The courts have generally ruled that someone in a public place doesn't have that expectation.

According to the courts, even people caught on camera in a remote area of a national park don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy, Mr. Sobel says. So Toogood appears to have little chance of challenging the videotape on privacy grounds. Charged with felony battery to a child, she faces up to three years in prison if convicted.

Among the calls coming into the Childhelp USA hot line, many have expressed anger at a parent who could do such a thing to a child. "Maybe something like this will make someone think twice," says Monaco. "But then again, they might go home and do it."

Behind closed doors.

Society still needs to figure out how far it should peep into people's lives.

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