Tuesday, October 15, 2013

So just how much police surveillance is too much?

There were a couple of thought provoking articles on government surveillance. The first from The New York Times looks at how the growth of surveillance by police is sparking a growing apprehension among privacy activists.
For law enforcement, data mining is a big step toward more complete intelligence gathering. The police have traditionally made arrests based on small bits of data — witness testimony, logs of license plate readers, footage from a surveillance camera perched above a bank machine. The new capacity to collect and sift through all that information gives the authorities a much broader view of the people they are investigating.
Via The New York Times

The second article is an opinion piece over at Wired magazine by tech guru Richard Stallman that asks the question How much surveillance can democracy withstand?

In the opening paragraph Stallman states:
The current level of general surveillance in society is incompatible with human rights. To recover our freedom and restore democracy, we must reduce surveillance to the point where it is possible for whistleblowers of all kinds to talk with journalists without being spotted. To do this reliably, we must reduce the surveillance capacity of the systems we use.
Via Wired

So just how much surveillance is too much?

Yes, there are some law enforcement benefits to some surveillance technology. But surveillance technologies are not a panacea. Throwing up video cameras won't make crime go away.

If you want proof of this, let's look at the crime of bank robbery. Banks were probably the first industry to widely embrace video surveillance technology. However, if you visit the innovative website Bandittracker.com you can see that this technology hasn't exactly made bank robbers extinct.

This website is chock full of surveillance images of people robbing banks. Some in disguise, but also a surprising number wearing no disguises at all. Why is this? Why would a bank robber not be deterred by the presence of surveillance technology?

This example can likely be extrapolated to understand the potential effectiveness of other surveillance technologies. Some of them may help deter a criminal who isn't highly motivated. Some of them may help catch some criminals who are motivated but aren't sophisticated enough to evade the technology. But none of them will be totally effective despite what the proponents of these technologies will try to tell you.

This brings us back to my original question: How much surveillance is enough?

The answer probably lies in the idea that the least amount possible, backed up by some good old fashioned gumshoe police work.

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