Who’s Watching the Watchers?

Earlier this week a local radio station ran a story on how, through the use of hidden cameras, a nearby municipality had been able to apprehend and convict an individual illegally dumping garbage. The story was portrayed as a ‘good news’ piece. After all, why not? We have a well-run regional waste-disposal system. In fact there is no charge whatsoever for residential use. Additionally, several recycling facilities are located adjacent to the facility which, just happens to be located on an extension of the TCH. It’s free, convenient and accessible so there is no reason for anyone not to use it–except for the wanton disregard for the environment that should require the type of penalty that was delivered. Justice was served and, what’s more, the story likely helped to solidify the growing belief that we are all charged with the stewardship of our environment; careless dumping of junk is something that is not to be tolerated.

But–and yes, this is for me a ‘big but’–near the end of the story, which was actually a chat between the radio host and the mayor of the municipality in question, the host inquired about the current location of the surveillance cameras. The mayor’s response was that even if he/she knew where they were he/she was not about to divulge the location.

Potentially that’s a large problem.

Now, we don’t need to quibble about the mayor not disclosing the location of the cameras on public radio. There’s no question that would be inappropriate so let’s not go there at all. If, however, the mayor simply did not know where they were because he/she was not regularly apprised then that would comprise a major problem. Before continuing with this it’s fair to note that there is a good chance that the mayor did have access to that information, but given the likelihood that they would be moved on a regular basis it was simply the fine details of where they would be on that particular day that he/she did not have at the fingertips but could easily access it if need be. In which case, again, no problem.

But consider the other scenario. Someone in the municipality might have access to powerful surveillance cameras and could be free to place them wherever they deem appropriate. In doing so there would be no paper trail and no judicial oversight. That said, again in fairness, you can be reasonably sure that, in this case, those charged with that responsibility are trustworthy and will exercise good judgement.

That’s not the point, though.

Because of the potential lack of oversight there is an opportunity for abuse. You do not have to exercise too much imagination to see the many negative outcomes that can happen when people are free to place hidden cameras wherever they wish, whenever they wish. It only takes one rotten apple to do quite a bit of damage.

The issue is not the surveillance cameras. There is no doubt that there are many situations in which they are not only a ‘pretty good idea,’ but even essential. Banks and similar locations prone to theft need them. Law enforcement absolutely requires them in the process of building cases against individuals and groups not acting in the best interests of society. In all those situations, though, there is either knowledge of the cameras or an agreed-upon requirement for their use in a particular circumstance.

The issue is with process. In the cases noted in the previous paragraph, there would exist a record of knowledge of the devices and, in the case of the hidden items, the placement would be something that was done under the watchful eye of our justice system, a system that is transparent and answerable to the people.

But is that always the case and are our leaders even willing to keep it that way? In a recently published article in Wired magazine it was noted how the US government has extended the use of all sorts of warrant-less surveillance, all in the name of security. Other countries similar to ours, notably Britain and Australia are in the process of enacting similar policies. Clearly, then, there is an appetite among at least some world leaders to fix it so that we all can be placed under a watchful, unregulated, eye.

Is that what we need–to be constantly watched by whoever wants to watch us, authorized by whatever petty quasi-governmental rank they may have and justified by personal belief and not The Law? I don’t think so.

As I see it this recent local story is just the thin edge of the wedge and there’s a lot more at stake than just catching a rotten litterbug.

Electronic devices make it just too easy for us to turn into a surveillance society, one in which we obsessively pore through footage for hours looking for the tiniest slight; one that encourages growth of the truly creepier side of our nature. Look, there’s nothing wrong with keeping a watchful eye on things. Vigilance is necessary in a mature society. Let’s just be sure, though, that the circumstances under which it occurs are justified and that there’s a reasonable and transparent process by which we go about doing it.

In other words let’s make sure that we–the population at large–are also able to watch the watchers.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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2 Responses to Who’s Watching the Watchers?

  1. Mjollnir says:

    Hi Maurice and thanks for visiting my blog,

    glad you mentioned the situation in the UK, where it sometimes seems there are more cameras than people! I’m going back there in about a month and can expect to be under surveillance almost constantly (admittedly I’ll be spending most of my time in either airports or a major city centre). I was gonna say it’ll be a sobering thought but that most definitely will not be true!


    • Hopefully the legistation and policies that result will, in the end, place sufficient respect for people’s privacy. I’d hate to see ‘surveillance’ being the word that defines our times.

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