San Francisco is the latest city to succumb to the siren song of Big Brother technology. The announcement of a 90-day pilot program to post two video surveillance cameras in the Western Addition is a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided response to the problem of street crime. High-tech cameras sacrifice precious privacy while providing very little in return in the way of added safety. In a city that has long prided itself on its dedication to civil liberties, this is a disheartening turn of events.
From Scotland to Sydney, studies have shown that the installation of video cameras does not prevent crime, but simply moves the crime from where the cameras are to where they aren't. As crime moves out of the camera's range, it is inevitable that ever more cameras will have to be installed to keep up with the shifting targets.
The move to install video cameras in the Western Addition is the product of a clever and aggressive marketing scheme by those who stand to gain the most from their installation: the camera companies. Preying on the legitimate concerns of residents, the companies made presentations directly to community groups and convinced them that cameras would be a panacea. The community groups then turned to City Hall.
But the community groups and City Hall have been sold a high-priced bill of goods. The cost is not only in dollars and cents or in the diversion of scarce resources from more effective crime-fighting tools, such as community policing. Residents and visitors also pay dearly with their privacy.
The latest generation of cameras, with their DVD-quality video footage, are ready-made for abuse. They can be watched and controlled over the Internet and have options for picking up sounds as well as pictures. Everything the camera sees and hears can be stored on its hard drive or in a database. With the push of a button, the cameras can zoom in close enough to read the title of the book you are carrying, the e-mail you are reading or the political notice that you are posting. They create a new and easy tool for inappropriate monitoring, discriminatory targeting, voyeurism, stalking or blackmail.
We commend Mayor Gavin Newsom for attempting to address some of these concerns by instituting plans to try to keep the cameras from spying on people's homes; looking at camera footage only after someone has reported a possible crime; erasing the recordings after 72 hours unless they are needed for an investigation; and not recording sound. Unfortunately, the current "restrictions" are not guaranteed. They can be easily amended or circumvented by the same people who instituted them in the first place, and even in their strongest form, they simply fail to address the fundamental problems created by round-the-clock surveillance. The only way to prevent abuse is for the mayor to end the program after its 90-day term.
Big-city crime is a serious problem that requires serious solutions. Programs such as the new Community Connect policing program are the right steps to effectively reducing crime and making San Francisco a safer city for all of its residents. Video cameras only provide the illusion of preventing crime and, in the end, do nothing but lead us inexorably closer to George Orwell's world in "1984": "There was of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment ... you had to live, did live, from habit that became instinct, in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."
Rather than being lulled into accepting this new intrusion, now is the time to speak up. This is not the future we want for San Francisco.