Putting privacy in focus

Brian
Brian Jones
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Artist Andy Warhol's famous prediction, that someday everyone will be famous for 15 minutes has grotesquely morphed in modern times. Fame doesn't come to all, but everybody certainly gets their share of time on tape - due to security cameras in banks, in stores, at work, etc.

The revelation last month that the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary plans to place closed-circuit TV cameras on George Street prompted surprisingly little public debate, and even less outrage.

Artist Andy Warhol's famous prediction, that someday everyone will be famous for 15 minutes has grotesquely morphed in modern times. Fame doesn't come to all, but everybody certainly gets their share of time on tape - due to security cameras in banks, in stores, at work, etc.

The revelation last month that the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary plans to place closed-circuit TV cameras on George Street prompted surprisingly little public debate, and even less outrage.

George Street may be a rowdy and rambunctious strip, but it nevertheless remains a public place, where citizens have a right to enjoy their social entertainment without being intruded upon by the state.

At least, in a former era they did.

These days, the concepts of private and public have become warped almost beyond recognition.

The government and its agents blithely proclaim the right to watch you go about your daily living.

But, on the other hand, citizens who want to watch the state by obtaining information from their government(s) can quickly find out that supposedly public information is considered private by some people who hold office - whether political or bureaucratic - and is not to be shared with the masses (see: Stephen Harper; Danny Williams).

Times change

A generation ago, a police proposal to put cameras in public places would have ignited huge controversy.

Years ago, it was controversial when stores and banks started installing cameras to monitor customers. Today, those surveillance cameras barely warrant a thought. Privacy rights? Not when there's money or property involved, pal.

The U.K. has several million closed-circuit cameras installed in public places and on private property, making it one of the planet's leaders in surveillance of its citizenry. Ironically, this is occurring in the home country of George Orwell, the writer who so passionately warned against relinquishing privacy rights to Big Brother.

More than half a century later, Orwell's well-known warnings still ring true. There is something profoundly offensive about the eyes of the state watching the comings and goings of citizens in a free and democratic country. In Orwell's day, and decades after, this would have been an attribute of police states, and would be unknown and unacceptable elsewhere.

Then again, Orwell could hardly recognize today's world.

If you were to sit down with him and have a chat, it would likely take some time to fully explain the circumstances around the July 2005 terrorist bombings of the London subway and bus systems that killed 56 people, including the four suicide bombers. ("Suicide bomber? What's that?" George might ask.) And we, and he, could reluctantly admit that the perpetrators were later identified mainly because of footage captured on closed-circuit TV cameras mounted in subway stations.

Street scene

This week, after the failed car bombing in Times Square in New York City, there was a lot of media coverage about the surveillance camera footage that police were using to try to identify suspects. After an arrest was made, there was little information forthcoming from police about what role, if any, all that surveillance footage had played. What was clear, though, is that there was a lot of footage, so much so that they probably left scenes of Kevin Costner on the editing room floor.

The clip of the man removing his shirt and then walking away - in an alley - was jarring proof of just how heavily monitored Times Square must be.

St. John's is not London or New York, obviously. But camera surveillance seems to have become an accepted part of our culture.

It is outrageous. It is equally outrageous, and unfortunate for us all, that the arguments in favour of it are often as strong and as valid as the arguments against it.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by e-mail at bjones@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: George Street, London, U.K. Times Square New York City St. John's

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  • Taxpayer
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    If the RNC thinks that installing cameras on George Street will take care of the drug problem, think again. The activity will just move to adjacent areas without cameras, which will prompt more cameras, which will prompt moving to another location, and so on and so on in a vicious circle. I live in an area where the RNC could better use its resources to take care of the numerous drug dealers, children (under 14) openly sharing a joint in the middle of the street or on someone's lawn, little pint sized arsonists who continually set fire to the woods in the area, the instances of family violence that take place almost daily, the speeders who use the street as a race track - and this is just one small area of our fair city. The cost of putting cameras on George Street is a waste of money - put the money into more actual police work and try to clean up this town just a little.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:31

    George ---- if a criminal mind is intent on committing a crime , I doubt whether a camera installed in a certain place will be much of a deterrent . This is a bit of a slippery slope , cameras today , and with today's technology where does it end . Maintaining the balance between security and the infringement on civil liberties must be paramount . What may be seen as very troubling , is the decent into the fear driven state much like that echoed in Orwell's 1984 .

  • George
    July 02, 2010 - 13:29

    Blimey Brian, could you not find anything better to write about? There cannot be an expectation of privacy on a public thoroughfare and the only people who should be concerned with the implementation of said cameras, are the ones who need privacy for their criminal activities.

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    Would the powers that be have us believe that we live in a dystopia , and that they are the sole protectors .

  • Puzzled
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    What do privacy rights have to do with the placement of cameras in public places? What you do in a public place by definition has no privacy, so what's the difference between someone physically observing your actions in public vs a surveillance camera? By all means go for it, especially if it makes our downtown safer!

  • Andrea
    July 02, 2010 - 13:16

    Oh for heaven's sake Brian, get over yourself and stop be so melodramatic.

  • Taxpayer
    July 01, 2010 - 20:23

    If the RNC thinks that installing cameras on George Street will take care of the drug problem, think again. The activity will just move to adjacent areas without cameras, which will prompt more cameras, which will prompt moving to another location, and so on and so on in a vicious circle. I live in an area where the RNC could better use its resources to take care of the numerous drug dealers, children (under 14) openly sharing a joint in the middle of the street or on someone's lawn, little pint sized arsonists who continually set fire to the woods in the area, the instances of family violence that take place almost daily, the speeders who use the street as a race track - and this is just one small area of our fair city. The cost of putting cameras on George Street is a waste of money - put the money into more actual police work and try to clean up this town just a little.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:19

    George ---- if a criminal mind is intent on committing a crime , I doubt whether a camera installed in a certain place will be much of a deterrent . This is a bit of a slippery slope , cameras today , and with today's technology where does it end . Maintaining the balance between security and the infringement on civil liberties must be paramount . What may be seen as very troubling , is the decent into the fear driven state much like that echoed in Orwell's 1984 .

  • George
    July 01, 2010 - 20:17

    Blimey Brian, could you not find anything better to write about? There cannot be an expectation of privacy on a public thoroughfare and the only people who should be concerned with the implementation of said cameras, are the ones who need privacy for their criminal activities.

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    Would the powers that be have us believe that we live in a dystopia , and that they are the sole protectors .

  • Puzzled
    July 01, 2010 - 20:07

    What do privacy rights have to do with the placement of cameras in public places? What you do in a public place by definition has no privacy, so what's the difference between someone physically observing your actions in public vs a surveillance camera? By all means go for it, especially if it makes our downtown safer!

  • Andrea
    July 01, 2010 - 19:57

    Oh for heaven's sake Brian, get over yourself and stop be so melodramatic.