Big Brother only wants to protect us PTC

February 07, 1996|By Thomas Everly

I WAS IN BALTIMORE recently for a conference. After the meeting ended in one of those plush hotel ballrooms, I decided to lunch at the Lexington Market. I try to go there every time I'm in the city. But this time, police secretly videotaped my search for the best crabcake sandwich in town.

These days, it seems, no one can escape the eye of the camera. We are videotaped in banks, at airports and in private buildings. We have grown accustomed to this inconvenience primarily because video surveillance seems to deter crime. Bank cameras catch armed robbers. Drunk drivers are convicted with camcorders in police cruisers. Videotape footage highlighted abuses within the Los Angeles Police Department and may convict the bombers of a federal building in Oklahoma.

And Baltimore has decided to patrol some streets with video surveillance cameras. Tacoma, Washington, and several other smaller towns nationwide have similar programs. The systematic introduction of these cameras onto our city streets is unsettling. Where are the limits?

Spotting litterers

Three years ago, the town of King's Lynn, England, installed seven cameras in a crime-infested public-housing project. With the approval of residents, the city soon expanded the program to 32 cameras for monitoring parking lots. Now, King's Lynn has more than 60 cameras centrally controlled from police headquarters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While cameras help nab crooks, police also use them to catch individuals who commit even minor offenses, such as littering. More than 300 other towns in Britain installed such systems as a solution to budget cutbacks.

State-sponsored video surveillance is also spreading in France. In the Parisian suburb of Levallois Perret, for example, police officers scan 18 television screens connected to hundreds of cameras around the city. Other towns are following. The French government, alarmed by the growth of these systems, recently launched an inquiry into their effect upon individual liberties.

In this country, the courts already have established that video television cameras may record in public places. If the state controls those cameras, however, these decisions may have to be re-examined, particularly when police must decide what actions should be punishable. How will authorities in Baltimore and elsewhere react, for instance, when video surveillance catches a woman jaywalking? A child skateboarding on the sidewalk? A father slapping a child in the street?

The impact of constant surveillance upon human behavior is even less clear. Bob Smith, publisher of the newsletter Privacy Journal, for one, sees the results as ultimately repressive. ''It alters the culture because people don't take risks, they are less creative,'' he says, ''Every person in the society keeps his nose clean.''

The French critic M. Paul Virilio, who specializes in the impact of technology on culture, argues in a recent issue of a British magazine, The Spectator, that life may eventually not be considered ''real'' unless it's been recorded. ''Today, I am constantly in a film whether I wish to be or not . . . '' he says. ''The danger is that this filmography of reality begins to supplant reality itself in the way that television has done with news. We all know that if an event is not on television, it does not really exist. Today, people are developing a need for this, this telerepresentation.''

The stress of surveillance

Mr. Virilio's vision of the future is already a reality -- at least on Music Television. In the past four years, 31 people have undergone a form of 24-hour hyper-surveillance for the MTV series ''The Real World.'' In the new companion book to the show, ''The Real Real World,'' one of the stars speaks of the hidden strain. ''I think 'The Real World' was stressful at times,'' Tami says. '' . . . You have to get used to a camera following you all the time, you have no private time.''

Another member of the cast captures the conflicting attitudes we all have for the camera. ''The worst thing about being on camera was adjusting to not being on camera,'' Dave writes, ''It makes you paranoid, but then you miss it.''

Perhaps George Orwell captured the dark side of the camera best in his classic dystopic novel ''1984:'' ''You had to live -- did live . . . from habit that became instinct . . . that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness every movement scrutinized.''

If our cities install these public cameras with impunity, before we know it Orwell's nightmare will be our reality.

Thomas Everly writes from Takoma Park.

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