. . . Monday August 1, 2005

You Are Gonna Be in Pictures

You may not realize it, but your life really (when it comes right down to it) isn’t all that much different from the ones being experienced by Brad and Angelina.

After all, like them, you are followed from place to place by hidden members of the paparazzi. Only in your case, the photographers are even more stealth.

From ATMS to convenience store security cameras to red light running snapshots, your photo is being snapped several times throughout the day.

That’s true here. And it’s even more true in a place like London where security cameras are everywhere. And after last month’s bombings, we can expect the same kind of camera coverage in major U.S. cities.

This will happen, even though, as Businessweek points out, the cameras did not protect Londoners:

Lost in the recent London bombings, along with innocent lives, was any illusion that today’s surveillance technology can save us from evildoers. Britain has 4 million video cameras monitoring streets, parks, and government buildings, more than any other country. London alone has 500,000 cameras watching for signs of illicit activity. Studying camera footage helped link the July 7 bombings with four men – but only after the fact. The disaster drove home some painful reminders: Fanatics bent on suicide aren’t fazed by cameras. And even if they are known terrorists, most video surveillance software won’t pick them out anyway.

One can make an argument on either side of this debate. While it’s true that the cameras didn’t prevent the London bombings, they have seemed to prove useful in identifying suspects.

But, ultimately, we will see a huge increase in security related paparazzi over the next few years. And those additional cameras will be installed whether they are useful or not.

I used to teach high school in Brooklyn on a campus that was protected by security guards with their Magic Wands. How airtight was that system? Well, the metal detection team would arrive on one random morning per week when they would check each and every student on the way into the building (imagine lines fives times as long as the worst airport back-up with a tardy arrival to your first period class as a reward for surviving the wait). Of course, on the random day of the week our school was selected, one could see a line of about nine white security vans parked in front of the school along with a queue of waiting students extending along the sidewalk in front of the school’s one security-check day entrance. And these security checks continued only until the end of the first period. So suffice it to say that such a system could at best catch either a really, really dumb criminal or an unlucky one who simply forgot he was packing heat that day.

The kids at the school, along with their parents, knew full well that the existing security system provided almost nothing in the way of added safety. So one would assume that if given the choice, the kids would opt to do away with the security force altogether. In fact, in a survey (I gave as part of a later grad school dissertation), almost every kid in the school indicated that while they knew the system didn’t work, they still wanted it in place. Like airport travelers today, most students and teachers desperately wanted more security and more metal detectors on campus. But short of that, they’d rather have a broken system (even one as laughable as the one in place) than nothing at all. It was worth the inconvenience just to feel a little more safe at those moments when you didn’t really think about it all that much.

So when the debate over how many public cameras we really need starts to heat up, don’t allow yourself to focus on the effectiveness of those cameras in terms of our protection.

When people are scared, it’s not about effectiveness. It’s just about doing.

Concentration is important!