Is Big Brother Watching Seattle's Parks?

Is Big Brother Watching Seattle's Parks?

Original Post: 22 April 2008
One of the most terrifying aspects of the movie 1984 (author George Orwell) was the omnipresent “eye” – (I’m talking about the 1956 movie version staring Edmond O’Brien, not the 1984 version with John Hurt).   I remember seeing it as a teenager (I was a teenager, not the movie) in the 1960s.   And I really remember the flashing eye everywhere – on the street, in offices, in Edmond O’Brien’s room.   As a teenager, the possibility of this total lack of privacy was pretty scary.  

Video Cameras in Seattle Parks
Today the Seattle City Council had its first public hearing about cameras which the City has placed in Cal Anderson Park.  There is a significant concern by the ACLU and others about placing these cameras around the City, having “the government” (i.e. the Police, Parks Department or even City technology employees) able to view the video.  
Yet there have been hundreds of crimes and thousands of phone calls asking for police service in this park over the last few years.  Clearly many members of the public who use that park or live near it are concerned for their safety.

Crime and Video
Will placing a video camera in high crime areas deter crime?   Perhaps, but probably not.  I visited the Chicago 911 Center and Police Headquarters in December, 2007.  Chicago has deployed several hundred PODs – police observation devices or video cameras.   They record crimes in progress all the time.  Very rarely are the crimes directly observed.   More often, a call to 911 triggers a quick search of stored video to find a stored video of the crime.   And this is even though the PODs are clearly marked and pretty obvious to any passer by.   But if PODs don’t deter crime, why install them?   They result in rapid apprehension and almost sure conviction of perpetrators.  And those criminals are off the street, not out there committing more crimes.

Seattle and 1984
Should we fear 1984 coming true in 2008?  I don’t think so, at least from the – all the City’s video is a public record which any member of can request to view or copy.  And all such cameras are placed in public spaces – streets, parks, City buildings, where there is no expectation of privacy.  Indeed, I’d want to put video from such cameras on a public website – just like traffic cameras – so anyone anywhere could view the video.  And, as a father whose family has been victimized by violent crime, I’m a wholehearted supporter of more cameras in public spaces controlled by your government and open to your review and inpsection.
But maybe we should be concerned about 1984 from another source – the thousands of private video cameras set up to deter crime in 7-11 stores, banks, in parking lots and stores.   Who is watching those cameras?  How is that video stored and used?  Who has access to those video records?   I don’t know.  Perhaps we should ask George Orwell.


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