Terrorism forces us to rethink use of surveillance

The use of public surveillance cameras to catch the Boston bombing suspects has prompted a nationwide conversation over how to balance privacy concerns with public safety. It’s an issue of interest for cities such as Olympia and Seattle, where identifying lawbreakers during May Day marches has proved troublesome.

Boston police made good use of the city’s 147 closed-circuit television cameras, as well as footage from cameras mounted on private businesses and from citizens’ cellphones, to identify two Chechen brothers as suspects. The success of the Boston police has increased pressure from law enforcement agencies everywhere to establish and expand public surveillance.

Recent research shows that Americans have concerns about law enforcement techniques that endanger civil liberties, but publicly placed closed-circuit television or CCTV cameras were not high on that list.

A New York Times/CBS News poll, taken a week after the Boston bombings, showed that 78 percent of respondents support the use of public surveillance. A later poll taken April 30 by Time magazine, CNN and Operational Research Consultants, drew similar results, showing that 81 percent of people favored surveillance by camera of streets and other public places. That’s up from 63 percent after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Most people realize that video cameras are ubiquitous these days. Privately owned and monitored cameras are common in South Sound major retailers as well as small independent businesses. CCTV cameras are found in parking lots, store entrances, and at cash registers.

We gave up any right to personal privacy in banks decades ago.

The City of Olympia has no public surveillance system, although it has some security cameras to protect city property. A Department of Homeland Security project has funded cameras at the Port Of Olympia and the Port of Seattle. By comparison, London has 51,000.

In some cities, such as Philadelphia and San Diego, police are keeping a database of private security cameras and developing public-private partnerships to solve crimes. In San Diego, police have access to private systems to watch in real time, giving officers en route to a crime scene advance information that helps them assess awaiting threats.

The debate occurring in Seattle over a proposal to expand the port security system with 30 new cameras, reflects the national conversation. Some residents have profound concerns about an invasion of privacy, and worry that adding just one camera is a slippery slope to the Big Brother police state.

Others say that the cameras make them feel safer and that the benefits outweigh the intrusion on privacy. High-profile assault cases in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and in Pullman were solved, in part, through the use of surveillance video.

Both of the recent public opinion polls found that Americans are coming to the realization that terrorists will always find methods to attack the United States. Ninety percent of those polled by The New York Times/CBS News said terrorism is now a fact of life, and 63 percent in the Time/CNN/ORC polls said the government cannot prevent all major terrorist attacks.

Until 2001, Americans always felt safe at home from international terrorism. The battle now has arrived on our shores, forcing us to recalculate our values of privacy and safety.