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Surveillance society: big safety or big brother?

Published by Jennifer on June 4, 2007 1:40 PM

In its short, 40-year lifespans, video surveillance technology has brought about many security revolutions. Stores have shifted from man powered security to exclusive camera systems. Cameras are used almost universally in places never thought possible - even 10 years ago. But the cultural implications to security cameras started in 1949, before the age of security cameras, with George Orwell's novel 1984.

The concept of "Big Brother," that omniscient, ever present, somewhat malicious overseer, is familiar even to those who haven't read Orwell's dystopian novel, and has become a popular euphemism for Britain's comprehensive system of surveillance cameras. So many cameras blanket the UK, in fact, that the average Briton is seen about 300 times per day by a surveillance camera.

The debate over security cameras in public places is nothing new - we've reported on controversies in cities London, Toronto and New York - all stemming from cameras recording public areas and seemingly harmless everyday activity. Opponents of public surveillance say that public security cameras are leading the industrialized world into a "surveillance society," where the evolution from security cameras and public surveillance is creepily gradual - and could become ominous at any time. Plus, they say, surveillance cameras don't even fulfill their expectations - they can only record crime as it happens and don't prevent anyone from doing anything.

Proponents of public surveillance claim that cameras do, in fact, work. Footage from a camera outside a London subway stop helped to identify and apprehend two suspects in the 2005 train bombing. Retail stores have also shown that security cameras have helped to identify shoplifters and help customers feel safer in their stores. Some surveillance defenders - like Libertarian journalist Katherine Mangu-Ward, have said that public surveillance, as long as it is purely public and not government-mandated, is no less intrusive than using a credit card or a toll pass.

So what is the case? Is public surveillance right or wrong? Will technology like video analytics shift the balance one way or another? Talk about how you feel in our forums.

UK trades privacy for security - USAtoday.com
Public Video Surveillance: Is It An Effective Crime Prevention Tool?

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