Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

July 9, 2007

Big Brother Coming To New York City

by Doug Mataconis

Today’s New York Times reports on the fairly ambitious surveillance plans that authorities have for  downtown Manhattan:

By the end of this year, police officials say, more than 100 cameras will have begun monitoring cars moving through Lower Manhattan, the beginning phase of a London-style surveillance system that would be the first in the United States.

The Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, as the plan is called, will resemble London’s so-called Ring of Steel, an extensive web of cameras and roadblocks designed to detect, track and deter terrorists. British officials said images captured by the cameras helped track suspects after the London subway bombings in 2005 and the car bomb plots last month.

If the program is fully financed, it will include not only license plate readers but also 3,000 public and private security cameras below Canal Street, as well as a center staffed by the police and private security officers, and movable roadblocks.

(…)

The license plate readers would check the plates’ numbers and send out alerts if suspect vehicles were detected. The city is already seeking state approval to charge drivers a fee to enter Manhattan below 86th Street, which would require the use of license plate readers. If the plan is approved, the police will most likely collect information from those readers too, Mr. Kelly said.

But the downtown security plan involves much more than keeping track of license plates. Three thousand surveillance cameras would be installed below Canal Street by the end of 2008, about two-thirds of them owned by downtown companies. Some of those are already in place. Pivoting gates would be installed at critical intersections; they would swing out to block traffic or a suspect car at the push of a button.

Unlike the 250 or so cameras the police have already placed in high-crime areas throughout the city, which capture moving images that have to be downloaded, the security initiative cameras would transmit live information instantly.

With all that surveillance, surely we will be making one of America’s most important cities safer. Right ?

Well, not exactly:

There is little evidence to suggest that security cameras deter crime or terrorists, said James J. Carafano, a senior fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group in Washington.

For all its comprehensiveness, London’s Ring of Steel, which was built in the early 1990s to deter Irish Republican Army attacks, did not prevent the July 7, 2005, subway bombings or the attempted car bombings in London last month. But the British authorities said the cameras did prove useful in retracing the paths of the suspects’ cars last month, leading to several arrests.

Whether that is worth giving the state the right to watch our every move is, of course, anything question.

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  • Ardie

    The real criminals and terrorists are in the board rooms of the corporations who run the American corporatist police state. Making the taxpayers pay for a security system that would have been of no use during 9/11 seems hardly worth the price in terms of our right to be free from unwarranted surveillance.

  • http://dangerouslyidealistic.blogspot.com/ UCrawford

    Frankly, I think that the idea of crime prevention is highly overrated and usually kind of ridiculous. 9/11 happened because one terrorist group (al-Qaeda) had more or less unlimited planning time, a safe haven to operate from, and not a little dumb luck in falling through some cracks in our intelligence/law enforcement communities (most of which the terrorists weren’t even trying to exploit). The idea that all terrorist attacks will be stopped by creating systems to hold people accountable is wishful thinking at best…terror attacks will still take place because the nature of terrorism means that they’ll always have the initiative, and a lot of terrorists don’t think or care about the repercussions. There’s nothing that we can do to change that, no matter how many security cameras we install or how severe we make the Patriot Act…and believing otherwise is just wishful thinking at best.

    That said, I’m actually okay with the security cameras, since they’ve actually shown that they can be effective in catching criminals after the fact and aiding in their prosecution. The British authorities were able to grab the terrorist planners so quickly because of the cameras, the cameras have proven themselves effective in catching perpetrators of other crimes as well (they helped catch and convict two rapists in the town I lived in in England), and I think that the argument against them on the grounds that we have an expectation to privacy in public arenas is fairly laughable. Having a camera on every corner isn’t really different than having a cop on every corner…in fact, I’d argue that it’s better since video evidence would be more reliable than eyewitness testimony, you don’t have to pay a camera a salary/health care/pension/disability/death benefits, and the video cameras can be just as effective at videotaping police abuses as any criminal acts that we may or may not commit as private citizens.

    So as long as the government is limiting the cameras to public areas and isn’t arguing they should be forcibly placed in our private homes and businesses (or restrooms), I don’t really see a detriment to having them…at least not more of a detriment than we have under the current system where the police and criminals can often operate untaped and unchecked.

  • http://incontiguousbrick.wordpress.com Keith

    Gosh, I can’t think of anything that would make me feel safer than to be able to “retrace” the steps of a suicide bomber after he blows up. Maybe we could all install cameras in our homes so every step can be retraced no matter where we are. Then the terrorist friends could be watched as well.

    Hey, maybe we could wiretap every phone in New York also. Then we could listen to what a terrorist said before an attack (because the phonecall would be on camera too). This is gonna be great.

    George Orwell would be so proud!

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