Is a watched society a free society?

The Fourth Amendment is the source of Americans’ right to privacy but while the home is sacrosanct the courts have said that a citizen in a public place has no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Thanks to the spreading use of surveillance cameras, a citizen now has no expectation, reasonable or otherwise, of any privacy at all in a public space. An average American now appears on a surveillance camera between 10 and 100 times a day.

In “Under Surveillance,” her examination of the use of these all-seeing eyes, Scripps Howard News Service reporter Lisa Hoffman writes that there are an estimated 5 million surveillance cameras in the U.S. today and their number is expected to double in five years. Selling, installing and supporting these cameras is now a $9 billion industry that is projected to reach $20 billion by 2010.

George Orwell’s Big Brother could only dream of this spy technology. Hoffman writes, “In Chicago, where 2,000 cameras already are in place, Mayor Richard Daley recently proposed requiring every business open more than 12 hours a day _ about 12,000, including 7,000 restaurants _ to install indoor and outdoor cameras. He said he intends to link public and private cameras alike to a central city government facility . . . ”

What’s striking about Hoffman’s findings is that this boom in surveillance has gone largely unmonitored, unexamined and unaddressed by federal, state and local law and regulation. While the public supports their use, it’s not even clear how well they work. There’s evidence that crime drops after public cameras are installed but there’s anecdotal evidence that the crime rate eventually returns to its old levels.

These are not the jerky, grainy videos of convenience store cameras but sophisticated devices that can see in the dark and read license plates a mile away, and computer technology has the ability to recognize faces and link into databases. An old farewell was, “Don’t be a stranger.” The day may be coming when you can’t.

There are serious issues of privacy and appropriateness _ do you, for example, videotape people seeking addiction treatment? _ and legal issues need to be addressed, such as who owns the images, has access to them and how long they should be archived.

An old question needs to be answered with regards to modern surveillance: Who will watch the watchers? The feeling of being watched is not just for paranoids anymore. Somebody really is watching.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)