THE NEWS that the city government plans to install and monitor 24-hour surveillance cameras along Baltimore's west side is just plain creepy. Is this necessary to keep the area safe, at the cost of our sense of privacy? What about the potential risk of abuse?
It's a big step up from passive cameras making recordings that are viewed only if there is a crime investigation to those controlled by city contract workers who will be watching.
What we knowingly expose in public isn't private, of course. But as we go about the day among the thousands of others on the sidewalks and in the plazas, people have understood that not too many folks were zeroing in on them. The youth whose low-riders ride too low. The woman quietly crying as she waits for a train.
Eroding their sense of anonymity must not be permitted to go forward without fail-safes to protect against unnecessary intrusion. Officials have provided too little detail thus far to instill public faith.
State, regional and local officials say the closed-circuit TV system is needed as part of a larger network to protect East Coast transport, government, business and cultural gems from terrorists, and to form the backbone of a regional network that could better prevent and respond to trouble. The next natural or manmade disaster could be better responded to if communities' authorities and rescue agencies can use a network that shares data and pictures -- and a solid command structure.
The details of the new $2 million network are sketchy; contractors are still putting in bids. In requesting and choosing a system, officials are working off some basic tenets: They must use software that ensures the cameras can't see through windows, use civilians as monitors so it's clear the system isn't police spyware, and instruct watchers to look only for "critical infrastructure" worries, however those are defined, and traffic flow.
Authorities cannot yet say whether the system would later be used for other purposes, whether it would resist hackers, what consequences there would be for misuse, or whether video recordings would form a permanent record.
Before authorities start watching Baltimoreans, they owe a better explanation and guarantees that the recorded images aren't permanent unless a crime has been committed. They owe promises that public debate will precede any "mission creep," such as later using the system for police surveillance. And they owe promises that every hired watcher will be well-trained, pass background checks and, perhaps, sign privacy guarantees.
As Americans watch a parade of assumed rights -- against detention without charges, against stripping at the airport -- fall by the wayside, it's reasonable to say wait a sec. Tell us more before you take more away.