Is the war on terror bringing us to 1984?


I was reading an article from the Herald Sun in Australia. In Melbourne, it is estimated that just about every person appears on surveillance cameras 100 or more times per day.

Now I want to be both realistic and, in a way, conservative in approaching such a number.

First of all, I think that we can agree just about the only place that does not have surveillance cameras of some kind is our respective homes. Perhaps you have them at your house, but for most people I’m going to say no, and I firmly believe we can all say that’s accurate. But the grocery store… the bank… even at the places we work… it’s possible. Once we get into our cars and leave the driveway, or close the door on our apartment, there is a chance that we are being watched on a surveillance camera. I think that’s being realistic.

Secondly, I think it’s safe to say that most people are in their homes for about 12 hours a day. I know that doesn’t apply in every case… some are home more often… some are home less often… and for some it all depends on the day of the week. But between sleeping, eating and just watching television or whatever we do to occupy our time, 12 hours in the house seems like a safe, conservative average.

Ok so far? Good...

That means… by doing the math… that most of us are in some way possibly being watched for half of every day. And if we can use this breakdown of a day as somewhat universal… which I think is fair… and are to believe the numbers being reported in Melbourne, that means they appear on a surveillance camera 8 to 10 times every hour. And that’s the part of this report that I wonder about.

The article doesn’t say what an “appearance” is.

Is it any place I go? Perhaps I show up on the tapes from two or three different cameras in the bank, but since it was just at the bank that only counts as a single appearance.

Is it any time I show up, even in the same place but on a different camera? I could be at a gas station or in a department store, and if I move into the range of three different cameras while there, even in a matter of seconds, that counts as three appearances.

Is it a length of time that I appear on camera? It could be the same camera that is watching me, but if it picks me up for over ten seconds… over thirty seconds… over a minute… that triggers a count as an additional appearance.

The differences between what an “appearance” is are important. Because by pushing examples like the ones I’ve noted to the extreme, 8 to 10 appearances per hour could range from filling the gas tank of my car and getting a drink at a convenience store (which might fill the quota for an entire hour in just a few minutes) to having a camera fixed inside the monitor of my computer on my desk at work.

But let’s push this matter forward a bit, beyond who is watching, when they’re watching, what they’re watching and how long they’re watching.

As the article mentioned, surveillance images have allowed for incredible advances… and amazingly quick advances… in assembling information about bombings in England. The article also mentions a degree of privacy concerns. And I think… well, I think everyone is overreacting a bit. And that scares me… because it sure seems like George Orwell may have only been off by a couple of decades.

The old cliché says there are two sides to every story. And in my experience, that’s true. For every story… issue… debate… situation… circumstance… whatever… there are two sides. In most cases, they aren’t in complete agreement. And of those cases, just about all of the time the truth is in the middle.

We want to live in a black and white, right and wrong world… where decisions are easy and the truth is obvious.

We don’t.

We live in a world with varying shades of gray, and the truth being found in the middle of the two sides. Sure, it may reside closer to one story than it does to the other… but it’s in the middle… in the gray.

As a result, quite often the immediate reactions to a problem aren’t the best solutions. They tend to favor one side of the story or the other, and neglect to take into account that the real solution is also going to be found in the middle.

It’s true that these surveillance cameras can be responsible for some great things. But for people that defend them in absolute terms, I ask you if you’ve heard of identity theft.


Identity theft.

Because, as one example, twenty years ago when I was applying to colleges, every application had a place for my Social Security number. Didn’t give it a second thought at the time. And now? Have you heard what happened at the University of Connecticut? I don’t have the link, but it was directly from a UConn site and provided details about how approximately 72,000 people may have had information compromised. (I didn’t go searching for a link that connected, because the story from UConn and information being compromised is simply far too common.)

Take that idea of providing information in what we approach withiout a second thought and run with it.

What about the financial institutions? Banks, credit reporting agencies, or any other place that holds such records. Do you pay attention to the news? Because it’s filled with stories of records being stolen or in some way violated.

Do you think they thought about these possibilities when creating the idea of a Social Security number? How about all the organizations that decided to ask for an individual’s Social Security number?

And the people that decided to computerize all of my data so that someone might be able to get it from a source I trusted… I’m just asking.

Because as we talk about these surveillance cameras, and see how they are being used for more and more and more things… from security in buildings to catching motor vehicle violations to any other purpose… it seems to me that the world today has more or less not only accepted them in certain instances, but accepted their importance in future uses.

The people claiming that we need more and more cameras are right… to a point. But having seen what protection my identity is offered, forgive me for not having complete and blind faith that the cameras will always be used for the right reasons.

The people claiming that our privacy is being violated and the need for more controls are right… to a point. But to paraphrase Sean Connery in The Untouchables… you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. If the technology is there to help deter crime, then it is a responsibility of society to in some way investigate that technology.

A few years ago I was working in a place that cashed checks for people. In order to sign up for this, a patron would have to supply some information… such as identification and a Social Security number. A man came in looking to cash a check, but refused to provide his Social Security number. I apologized and told him we couldn’t cash the check without it. And that’s when the Abbott and Costello routine broke out.

He insisted I had to cash the check.

I insisted… as politely as I could… that I could only attempt to cash it with the required information.

He actually debated it with me for ten minutes. I still think he was an idiot.

He was absolutely right… he didn’t need to give me the number. But he was wrong… I didn’t have to cash his check.

If advances in the world… such as technology and surveillance cameras… are going to be made thoughtfully and responsibly, I can accept that. A few extra minutes is a small price to pay so I can go to the top of the Empire State Building or fly to Australia and feel safe. Figurative connection – if I want my check cashed, there may be some procedures I need to accept.

But if they are being planned only as a reaction to something, and if people think that the systems will never be abused or misused… well… that’s wrong. And if that is the case, then we really are heading for a day when people will be watched for every second, every action and wondering where it all went wrong.


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