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Big Brother is being ripped off

Posted by Richard on July 29, 2009

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the country's most strident opponents of citizens' self-defense rights, a man who firmly believes we should forgo armed self-defense in favor of dialing 911 and/or counting on the government to always be watching out for our safety, has for some time been pushing for more and more surveillance cameras in the city.

They'd better add cameras fast, because the thieves are stealing them pretty fast:

New York, NY – Two oddballs have been busted for swiping nearly 20 percent of the city’s red-light cameras right under Big Brother’s nose.

They allegedly drove around town in a pickup truck with a cherry-picker to dismantle 22 of the high-end Nikons from their street poles.

The devices are used to identify red-light-running drivers, who then are issued tickets by mail.

The suspects peddled an estimated $88,000 worth of goods to a camera resale shop for $300 each to feed their heroin habits.

Having gobs of cameras covering public places everywhere is not really a Constitutional problem. But in spite of what TV cop shows lead you to believe, it's apparently not very helpful either. That's what the evidence from Britain, the most surveilled society on Earth, suggests, according to Ross Clark, author of The Road to Big Brother: One Man's Struggle Against the Surveillance State. Reason's Jacob Sullum noted this in his review of the book:

Take all those cameras. So far in the United States, they have been limited mainly to detecting traffic violations, generating heated debate about whether they reduce or increase accidents and whether municipalities are sacrificing public safety for the sake of revenue (by reducing the duration of yellow lights, for example). But provided they focus only on public areas, there is no constitutional barrier to erecting surveillance cameras throughout the United States, until our country is as thick with them as the U.K. …

Yet there is something to be said, fiscal concerns aside, for not having a cop on every corner. The sense of being constantly watched tends to put a damper on things

By Clark’s account, this cost is not worth paying. He says the evidence that the government’s surveillance cameras are effective at either deterring or detecting crime is thin. Facial recognition software aimed at catching known suspects has been a bust, easily foiled by poor lighting, hats, sunglasses, even a few months of aging. Clark argues that Britain’s cameras, which he describes as frequently unmonitored or out of order, are appealing as a relatively cheap way of seeming to do something about crime. He finds that “electronic surveillance is not always augmenting traditional policing; it is more often than not replacing it, with poor results.” Likewise, he says, huge collections of information gleaned from private sources such as phone companies, banks, and credit bureaus (along the lines of America’s renamed but not abandoned Total Information Awareness program) are unmanageable and rife with errors. Clark notes that “there is a fundamental rule about databases: the bigger they are, the more useless they become.” 

There's no indication in Sullum's review that camera theft is a problem in Britain. Maybe the bad guys are just more entrepreneurial in New York than in London. 

In any case, the idea that we can abandon all responsibility for our own safety and entrust it to the ever-watchful and ready-to-respond-instantaneously "authorities" is, always has been, and always will be nonsense.

 And likewise, the fears of libertarians (and civil libertarians) that Big Brother is always watching seem overblown (even if Big Brother's camera hasn't been stolen).

Governments seem to be no more competent in their efforts to institute Big Brother than they are in anything else.

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One Response to “Big Brother is being ripped off”

  1. David Aitken said

    The reason cameras in Britain aren’t stolen is because the Brits usually torch them. Somewhere there’s a website with pictures of dozens of burned out British cameras, but I’m too lazy to look for it.

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