The Privacy Train Has Left the Station

Reason magazine's Katherine Mangu-Ward argues that the proliferation of video cameras in public spaces leaves little room for personal privacy, and may not be such a bad thing.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And right now it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. A recent report from the New York Civil Liberties Union raised questions about the growing number of surveillance cameras in New York City, and the risk those cameras pose to personal privacy. Of course it's not just New York.

As cameras pop up on street corners and traffic lights in cities across the country, the ACLU report asked would you still go to a political event, a psychiatrist, a gay bar or a fertility clinic, if you knew, the impression was, that you might be videotaped?

In an op-ed in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer, Kathy Mangu-Ward argues of course you would. She argues that the benefits of surveillance cameras far outweigh the dangers to privacy. As always we want to hear your thoughts on this. Do you think the risk to personal privacy outweighs their contributions to security?

And when companies and the police can track your credit cards, EZ-Pass and your cell phone anyway, does it really matter if cameras capture your trip to the doctor's office?

Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: talk@NPR.org.

And Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine. She joins us today from the studios at member station WBUR in Boston. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. KATHERINE MANGU-WARD (Associate Editor, Reason Magazine): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I think that last point is central to your argument. The electronic privacy train has long since left the station.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: That's right. Privacy has been mostly an illusion for an awfully long time. In a few years, cities dwellers in particular aren't going to be able to going to go anywhere or buy anything without being tracked. But I think instead of fretting about in sort of a general way the proliferation of cameras and the loss of privacy, we should be vigilant again particular abuses.

And most importantly keep in mind the upsides of living in a world where everything we do is indexed and/or watched.

CONAN: Well, we'll get to those upsides in just a minute. But first of all, the great majority of the cameras out there in public spaces now are, curious enough, private cameras - placed at ATM machines, that sort of thing. The big growth factor, though, you say is going to be government cameras. Isn't there a difference?

Ms. MANGU-WARD: There is a difference and it's very important to keep the difference in mind. In particular there's a proposal in New York right now, which would require the city's nightclubs to install cameras. That blurs the distinction between public and private cameras.

That's the sort of thing we should be spending our energy fighting. Owners of private institutions and private property certainly should not be forced to record what happens on their own premises.

On the other hand, the city's campaign to add a few more cameras in the New York streets - it's a $9.1 million project for 500 more cameras - is a drop in the bucket compared to the 4,200 cameras that are already present below 14th Street.

CONAN: So that this - however, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the number now. But it's also, some would argue, the thin end of a wedge and therefore you're going to have thousands and thousands of these things pretty soon.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: It's true. But, again, I think the more important angle in this is not the cameras themselves. The cameras themselves aren't a problem. The problem is the way that they're used. And while it's important to guard against police misuse of cameras, honestly the most common misuse is going to be, for example, someone catching someone nude sunbathing in their backyard or perhaps rewinding the video to look for their lost keys.

And it's vital that we distinguish between that, which is none too admirable but not the surveillance state and not big brother and real infractions on privacy like the requirement to install cameras in nightclubs or other private institutions.

CONAN: Now the collection of information in itself is an unstoppable force you write and mostly for the good. Here we get to the upside. What's the upside?

Ms. MANGU-WARD: The upside is convenience. If you read the New York Civil Liberties Union report, they open with a quite dramatic question, which you quoted: would you go to a gay bar if you knew you were being watched? And the answer, is of course you would and you would pay with a credit card. So whether or not there's a camera outside the gay bar, if someone wants to know if you were there, they'd been able to find that out for a long time just be getting your credit card records.

Likewise, we greatly enjoy being able to sort through every purchase that we've made in the last three years.

We love speeding through the EZ-pass lane. I know I always look smugly over at the anonymous people with their cash. But moreover, even though we know these databases exist, and pretty much everyone does if they think about it, we don't worry about the ways they're going to be used, because we live in a free country.

I have known for years that my credit card knows where I buy my underwear, but it doesn't mean that I'm concerned about being prosecuted for indecency.

CONAN: Well, it depends on where you buy your underwear, I suppose.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: I suppose it does.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But your point, basically, if we use the EZ pass to get our car close to the gay bar or wherever it was we were going and paid for a round of drinks with our credit card, that information is there already.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: That's right.

CONAN: Okay. And nevertheless, there are certain kinds of people, certain situations, where these cameras have provided a great deal of security to people. They make the streets safer.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: That's true, and I think that we can all think of the biggest example, which was of course the London subway bombings, where the bombers were caught because their images were caught on camera, and the images were put up on TV quite promptly.

But it's also worth noting that the camera images not only protect us against criminals, they can protect against police as well. If the police know that they are being taped, they're perhaps likely to behave better, although that is a very controversial issue. But at the very least, when, for example, protestors at the 2004 Republican convention in New York were accused of resisting arrest, many of them beat the rap with video evidence from public cameras and from their own cell-phone cameras.

CONAN: It's interesting. You say that cameras in public places obviously did not deter the London bombers. They went ahead with their terrible plot anyway, but - so it may not deter criminals, but it will deter police officers?

Ms. MANGU-WARD: The police officers themselves are actually quoted in the New York Civil Liberties Union Report. It's quite interesting, and they simply -partially I think because they're very aware of these cameras. It's not clear whether the average criminal knows which camera is where, but the police do, because they use them.

CONAN: Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of Reason magazine. Her op-ed ran in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. It argued that the - in the balance of things, more surveillance cameras, even government cameras, are a force for good rather than concern about Big Brother.

If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's go to James. James is with us from San Antonio, Texas.

JAMES (Caller): Yeah, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JAMES: I think you framed the beginning of the argument in a libertarian mold, and I think - I am a libertarian. I'm very dissatisfied with both the major parties right now, but I think if you're going to frame it in a libertarian way, you should talk about, first, the difference between a private person putting a camera on their own property and tax-payer unwilling subsidation(ph) of cameras.

And secondly, I think a big issue is who has access to the video that's being taken, because there's a question of transparency, and if a citizen can get access to the subway camera, then that's fine, but I have - why do I seriously doubt that I would be able to go online and look at a camera, but the FBI would easily be able to do that.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: It's an interesting question, and you're absolutely right. The distinction between private cameras and public cameras should be made. However, it shouldn't be overemphasized, because footage from any of these private cameras is obtainable by subpoena, and that erodes the difference. It's not to say that the difference disappears.

JAMES: But a person making $5 an hour doesn't have access to, you know, a lawyer to subpoena for information on a camera, whereas the Justice Department, you know, they can just call someone up on speed dial and have immediate access to it. But maybe that's kind of a false dichotomy there, though.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: No, you're quite right, but that gets back to the point that I was making earlier, about how it may be that the proliferation of cameras in private hands will be protection against that, in part. If you are fighting the government, it's true you might not be able to get government video, but if you have cell-phone video, if you have the cooperation of your neighborhood merchants who you frequent, you may have competing video, which will be a better force against these public cameras which, as I say, may be unstoppable.

JAMES: Okay.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call.

JAMES: Appreciate it, thank you.

CONAN: Goodbye. As you look at these different uses, though, one of the concerns - and again, it's this idea of taping the police doing - we all remember the Rodney King video. I guess that's the most famous one, but there's a lot of situations where the police wouldn't let you videotape them.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: That's right, and that's a fight worth having. I do think the right to videotape police as they make arrests, go about their business, monitor protests, is something that's absolutely worth fighting for and should be taken to court and argued in the public sphere.

CONAN: There's also a fair number of, you know, public surveillance cameras of various sorts that the public does have access to - traffic-cams and that sort of thing - to monitor how things are going on whatever beltway the traffic jams up on wherever it is you live.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: And weather-cams.

CONAN: And weather-cams.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: Very popular.

CONAN: Yes, OK. Again, we're speaking with Katherine Manu-Ward, associate editor of Reason magazine. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Let's go to - this is Rachel, Rachel with us from Seattle.

RACHEL (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

RACHEL: My point is, I guess, that we shouldn't necessarily be so concerned about the cameras because they're already out there, they're going to keep coming, and they do provide a really good public view or, you know, public service. But I guess I'm more concerned about what is done with that information, particularly the fact that corporations are using these cameras and, you know, that all the information that corporations collect about different people and how they use that information.

There's, you know, guidelines in place to prevent the government from using information in certain ways, but we pay corporations to collect this information, as we don't seem to care at all.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: We do care, I think, especially when we benefit from it. And it's true that we could be concerned about what corporations will do with it, but most of the time, what corporations do with it is provide services to their customers.

So for example, I can look through my credit-card ratings. I can use GPS in my phone. Many people are concerned about GPS tracking, and while it is a legitimate concern, it's vitally important for me to have GPS in my phone as a person who frequently gets lost while driving. I'm willing to accept what trade-offs there are for those kinds of services.

Supermarket discount cards are a big example here because it turns out that people will trade the privacy of what they buy at the grocery store for a dollar off the next bag of Cheetos.

CONAN: I'm sorry, you were trying to get back in there, Rachel?

RACHEL: Well, yeah. I was going to say to a certain extent, but - you know, for example, I work for an insurance company, and we can access all kinds of information about people that they don't realize that we can get. And do you really think that, you know, the types of items that you buy at a grocery store or, you know, the amount that you pay for your home loan should affect the price that you pay for your insurance for your car?

I mean, you've got to look at things like that, that certain things really do have a negative impact on people, and people just don't seem to care or take the time to find out.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: I think the fact that people don't care or don't take the time to find out suggests that maybe even though in the abstract we like the idea of that kind of privacy being very robust, in practice it's not as important to us as other conveniences and other issues in our lives.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Rachel.

RACHEL: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking today with Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason magazine. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Mike, Mike from St. Louis.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Yeah, I think we're kind of almost tilting at windmills here talking about this because it's - a company like Google is probably going to see the world together in one continuous, you know, possibility of seeing everything on Earth in not that long of a time, and we really - we're going to have to essentially get used to the idea that anyone can see anything at any time. And so not to worry about it, just figure out how you can connect it that was - I mean that you have to protect your privacy some other way.

CONAN: Katherine Mangu-Ward, are you worried about that camera shot that begins, you know, somewhere out past the moon and then swoops in to finally look at you through your Webcam on your computer?

Ms. MANGU-WARD: Well, I must admit, as I mentioned, I'm lost a lot of the time, so Google Maps is an important part of my life. But I think the caller is quite right. It is sort of inevitable, and to fight it, to tilt at those windmills may not be worth it.

However, the New York Civil Liberties Union Report did have one interesting aspect to it, which was a map of all the cameras that were known. So for people who do value their privacy particularly and who do worry, they can tilt their fedora down at the corner of 14th, and then they can tilt it the other way if they move a block over.

There are - you know, as there is more satellite images of everything we do, you can also fight them more with private information.

CONAN: Little realizing that that tilt of your fedora is going to be the identifying marker on your picture.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: For criminal behavior, that's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right, Mike, thanks very much for the call.

MIKE: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Where should the line be drawn, as clearly these things - and not just in public spaces, but everywhere there are going to be more and more of them?

Ms. MANGU-WARD: There's two important lines to be drawn. The first is the vitally important requirement that private property not be required to install cameras. This gets back to the nightclub example in New York, but could certainly - it's easy to see how it could expand to other places where shady activities take place.

It's very important to fight for the right of private owners to choose not to install security cameras, which will be the only real way to protect that information completely, since an existing camera could be subpoenaed.

The other one that is important to draw is the right of private citizens to use cameras whenever they do want to, which includes things like videotaping police, and it includes access to other kinds of cameras where possible.

CONAN: And let's see if we can squeeze one last call in. If we can do it quickly, this is Bruce, Bruce with us from Hot Springs in South Dakota.

BRUCE (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. The biggest thing I think is that we need to focus on really legislating the proper use of this information. It's not going to go away. Good and bad, it's here to stay, and it's only going to continue, and I think we'd be best off focusing on making sure that it's used properly.

And I apologize, but one comment I'd like to make is in your last segment - I think it's amazing that regardless of what our stance on abortion, it's amazing to me that people are tried for murdering a pregnant mother in a car accident or various situations and that we can call that murder, yet we don't - we distinctly don't seem to see abortion in a similar manner. I realize it's a choice that a woman is making…

CONAN: And it's a difference in the way the law is written, but I think I get your point.

BRUCE: Okay.

CONAN: Bruce, thanks very much for that.

BRUCE: Thank you, too.

CONAN: Thank you to our guest, Katherine Mangu-Ward, associate editor of Reason magazine. Her op-ed appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. If you'd like to take a look at it, there's a link to it on our page. That's npr.org/talk, and you can also download many of our recent op-ed pages as Podcasts. And Katherine, thank you very much for being with us today.

Ms. MANGU-WARD: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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