Former Seattle CTO endorses surveillance cameras

Former City of Seattle CTO Bill Schrier (@billschrier), a man we respect, admire, and retweet frequently, and who originally proposed that Seattle’s meshnet be free and open to the public, surprised us with an article in favor of surveillance cameras on Crosscut. Our correspondent over at the Privacy Project, Number Six, writes:

“This is most disturbing, especially when it’s been shown that London “I love CCTV more than anywhere else”, UK hasn’t seen any notable decline in crime based on using ever-more-ubiquitous surveillance:

An ounce of prevention is worth FAR more than a pound of cure, and these cams and wireless trackers that were recently outed are the ‘cure’ we don’t need. I would take more police on the street any day than faceless cameras that store data who knows where, for how long, and available to who knows who.  I can talk to a policeman, his/her supervisor, the police chief, etc. — I can’t talk to a camera.  A camera isn’t accountable. And the 4th Amendment holds emphatically that we are NOT ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

And it’s *very* important to note  — these are HARD questions by nature. Taking the easy way out is what we’ve done to date — talking together and then acting on these questions is far more difficult – but ultimately may actually mete out a compromise we can all live with.  Pointing out that ‘everyone has phones with video capability’ is a straw man that burns down in a whiff of smoke – last time I was walking around in public, I certainly did not see everyone on the street video-recording everyone else, let alone snapping everyone’s photo — why?  Because it’s not appropriate and societal norms resist it, whether you are a privacy advocate or not. Is Schrier saying we should just ‘accept our fate’ and be done with it?  NO, thank you, sir  —  and I’m pretty sure I’m in the majority on that view, even in camera-burdened 21st-century Seattle.

Time to make sure the new mayor and incoming City Council take that to heart now, in writing, in law — or we never will.”

Thanks for the eagle eye, Number Six. It’s easy to get used to the sound of our own arguments, and we found it jarring to read sensible, well-respected Bill Schrier saying this: “Luckily, technology provides a cheaper option: surveillance cameras.”

The discussion of cost effectiveness would be more interesting if data showed that cameras actually do prevent crime. As it is, however, comparing the cost of cameras to the cost of officers feels a bit like a red herring.

Schrier does go on to acknowledge that the truth is we already have a very serious problem with privacy invasion, not only as a result of publicly financed law enforcement technologies, but also as a result of the dizzyingly advanced private use of surveillance technologies with respect to every aspect of our lives. And the outrageous monetizing of that data by reflecting us back to ourselves in advertising built on facial recognition technologies.

As one way to address the problem, Shrier suggests making all video footage open to watchdog group scrutiny and allowing ACLU to search surveillance databases. And then, with an interesting twist of what sounds like existential doubt, he calls for more ideas about safeguards: “Are we frightened enough to use video technology to significantly — perhaps massively — extend the reach and multiply the capabilities of the Seattle Police Department? And, if so, what safeguards do we need to put in place to manage this brave new world?”

Those are very good questions. We’re glad to see them coming up for public discussion at last. For more on Seattle Privacy’s position on surveillance and privacy protections at the municipal level, see our Manifesto.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.