Columnist Alan Verson: Rationally consider balancing privacy, security

  • Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper, left, responds during a public meeting Sept. 13 at the Senior Center to discuss the use of surveillance cameras downtown.    GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Bill Newman’s column published Nov. 4 presenting his case against surveillance cameras calls out for a response. Although I personally am not a particularly strong proponent of the cameras, Newman’s argument was full of holes.

First, he stated that the police chief has said that the cameras would have extremely limited utility, if any, as a law enforcement mechanism. I hope the chief did not really say that, because how could she then have justified or explained wanting to install them? It does not make sense.

Second, he argues that the cameras would capture the image of everyone walking across the street, be stored for three weeks and then federal agencies would be able to use technology to read our lips or recognize our faces.

Why not just store the images for one week, as the usefulness for solving a crime would presumably be known right away? That would reduce the chance that federal agencies would get access to any particular images.

More importantly, I would not waste one minute worrying that federal agents were going to be reading my lips, or anyone else’s lips, as we walk across the streets, as Newman warns us. That sounds just too paranoid and far-fetched to be taken seriously. There are far more important and realistic dangers to life, or to walking across the street, for us to worry about. I detest Donald Trump as much as the next person, but this is the stuff of science fiction comic books, not reality.

Newman refers to the cameras constituting “an enormous, constant and perpetual invasion of our privacy” and the “shredding of our social fabric.” I’m sorry, perhaps I am naïve, but I just don’t feel threatened.

Crucially, the one thing that Newman does not discuss is the balance between privacy and security. Assuming that Chief Jody Kasper believes that they would provide more security, and I trust her opinion on this important point, then what about the shredding of our social fabric caused by a mugging, a robbery, or some other crime that cameras could potentially prevent, or help in apprehending the offender? Newman does not even mention in his lengthy column the subject of crime, or the balancing of competing social objectives. Perhaps he is the naïve one.

And, by the way, do the people who are worried sick about the enormous intrusion into our privacy from the cameras worry about the information they are giving up about themselves when they go on Facebook or Google, or when they order something from Amazon? The loss of privacy from these activities is vastly more serious, realistic and present than the possibility that Jeff Sessions will be reading my lips as I walk across the street.

There is a huge industry that makes billions of dollars by harvesting and selling vast amounts of personal information about us that they gather from our activity on the internet. True, this is private industry, not the government (represented by the loathsome Trump) but it certainly puts the notion of a sacred right to privacy into a different light.

Newman makes a big point about the cost of the system. He says that the first year, when presumably the system would be installed, will cost $83,000. He then asserts that the cost will increase over time, so he concludes that it will end up costing a million dollars or more. I have no actual information of the costs, but these numbers do not make sense. Installation is clearly the expensive part, and I would be surprised if operating the system once installed did not turn out to be pretty inexpensive. If it would contribute to public safety, and that again is the main issue, then it sounds like a good investment.

In general I would be more comfortable with a discussion of the pros and cons (yes, there are both) of the cameras that did not engage in hysteria, paranoia, exaggeration and political correctness.

What we need is to have is a rational discussion of the balance between privacy and security, and how the surveillance cameras fit into that balancing.

Alan Verson is a Northampton attorney.