Surveillance cameras strike balance in fight against terrorism

August 05, 2007|By Clark Kent Ervin

Among the many urgent questions raised by 9/11 was how, exactly, to strike the optimal balance between security, on the one hand, and civil rights and civil liberties on the other. At times since 9/11, the government has weighed in too heavily on the side of security. The domestic call tracking program is a conspicuous case in point.

The effort, first reported in May 2006 by USA Today, to keep track of potentially billions of calls within the United States, even when there is no apparent tie to terrorism, is a huge imposition on our civil rights and civil liberties, for little if any gain in security. If anything, the program makes the already hard job of counterterrorism officials even harder, and therefore makes us less safe. Finding actionable intelligence is always like finding a needle in a haystack. By piling more hay on the stack than is necessary, the job of finding the needle within is made more difficult.

But there are other times when the government has gotten the balance exactly right, and the New York City plan to begin to deploy surveillance cameras widely is the latest example of that. At least as an investigative tool after the fact, surveillance cameras have proved their worth time and again in London, the city with more cameras than any other in the world. (Some 4 million cameras, one for every 15 people, manage to spot the average person there about 300 times each day.)

The perpetrators of the deadliest terror attack in British history, the July 7, 2005, subway and bus bombings two years ago that killed 52 people, were identified by these cameras, as were the perpetrators of a similar plot two weeks later. The investigation into the foiled attacks in London several weeks ago is proceeding at breakneck speed in large part because of the use of these cameras. So, it is good news indeed that the authorities in New York City are planning, by the end of next year, to deploy about 3,000 cameras in Lower Manhattan.

Civil libertarians are, predictably, up in arms. But, this time, the "securitycrats" have the better argument. For one thing, the cameras are not to be deployed in people's bedrooms or bathrooms, but on public streets and other public places where people have no reasonable expectation of privacy. For another, there are already cameras - tens of thousands of them - in public places (buildings, street corners, convenience stores, ATMs) throughout the city (and every other major city in the country, for that matter) over which there are no safeguards against abuse whatsoever. But safeguards can and should be built into the program to guard against abuse - for example, periodic random audits by independent oversight bodies; tough sanctions for using the system for other than counterterrorism or crime-fighting purposes; and a limit on how long the images can be archived.

Most civil libertarians agree that surveillance cameras are a valuable investigative tool after the fact; the only question is whether they also serve as a deterrent against crime and terrorism.

Who knows how many crimes or terrorist attacks might have been committed but for the presence of surveillance cameras? Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld might rightly call this an "unknowable unknown." But we can make an educated guess.

It is extremely hard to deter terrorists who are suicidal. But it is also true that terrorists - perhaps especially suicidal ones - want their plots to succeed. It is plausible that at least some terrorists might think twice about attempting a terror attack if they think their plot might be foiled before it can be executed by the swift response of alert police officers actively monitoring camera banks. And crime has been shown to drop substantially in London and American cities - including Baltimore - where cameras are widely deployed. But even if it could be proved that surveillance cameras have no deterrent effect at all, isn't their utility as after-the-fact investigative tools reason enough to deploy them, especially with the safeguards mentioned above?

Yes, the civil libertarians are sometimes right in saying that the post-9/11 government is going too far. And these abuses have understandably served to call into question our government's credibility and its competence. But they are wrong to assume that any and every counterterrorism measure necessarily leads us down a slippery slope to the loss of the freedoms we rightly hold dear and that terrorists aim to deny us.

Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, is head of the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Program and author of "Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack." His e-mail is clark.ervin@aspeninst.org.

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