Are video cameras hostile to liberty?

Many potential criminals, including Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, have been thwarted with help from security cameras. But should privacy in public arenas be sacrificed for safety?

Stephen Chernin/AP
A woman enters a New York City subway station on Tuesday, March 30. On a subway train in the middle of Manhattan, two men were stabbed to death after a night out clubbing. But three days after the slaying, police were still piecing together a description of the killer because there were no security cameras in the station.

Raise your hand if you think security cameras in public places erode individual liberty. The right to privacy, for example.

Now set aside the distinction between anonymity and privacy, which some Libertarians do, and consider the cases where cameras have helped catch bad people. And here we define bad people as extremely hostile to individual liberty (murderers, rapists, terrorists).

  • Most recently, security cameras identified Faisal Shahzad, the would-be terrorist of Times Square in April 2010.
  • The murder of Sandra Cantu in early 2009, now in the headlines because the alleged killer confessed, was partially solved using surveillance camera images of Sandra skipping to play at the killer's home.
  • Joseph Smith would still be free but for a security camera which filmed him with a girl he murdered in February 2004: "Smith's friends and co-workers testified that he was the tattooed man pictured in a surveillance video from a car wash security camera who grabbed Carlie's wrist and led her away."

Surveillance has both an enforcement effect and a deterrent effect. As for the erosion of privacy from this new technology, it exists only by conflating the definition of privacy with that of anonymity. And American society does not recognize a right to anonymity. Privacy in the public sphere strikes me as oxymoronic.

We can anticipate a rapid increase in public surveillance in the years ahead, and I think that's an almost unadulterated good. Every time a reckless driver zooms past you on the highway, don't you wish he could be ticketed automatically? Instead, we rely on random chance that a police vehicle will be hidden, identify the reckless driver, and pursue him/her successfully. Wouldn't a better world identify every reckless driver and pacify the roads? Remember, more Americans die every year from traffic accidents than died during the entire Vietnam war.

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