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BLOG: Post Boston: Privacy advocates warn about coming tsunami of surveillance cameras

Ms Smith | April 23, 2013
After Boston, there is a cry to increase surveillance cameras. But facial recognition technology didn't identify the bombing suspects. Privacy advocates warn that creating more of a surveillance society, further decreasing privacy, is not the answer.

In The Dangers of Surveillance, Neil Richards, law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, made a case for legally recognizing why surveillance is harmful. After what happened in Boston, Richards said, "There is going to be more of a push to have more cameras on the streets, and it will be difficult to resist that push. The difficult balance is to have them [cameras] there for extraordinary efforts such as what we've seen this week but not for us to live in an emergency situation all the time."

The "success of Boston surveillance" is being cited in St. Louis as validation "to link 150 surveillance cameras into a single security system." But Richards warned, "We have to carefully watch the watchers or we could end up with a level of public surveillance that nobody wants. The issue isn't that we don't want cameras but what kind of security state do we want and what privacy are we going to give up for it?"

Facial recognition technology "did not identify" the two bombing suspects, according to Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis. "The work was painstaking and mind-numbing: One agent watched the same segment of video 400 times." The Washington Post pointed out that facial recognition "technology came up empty even though both Tsarnaevs' images exist in official databases: Dzhokhar had a Massachusetts driver's license; the brothers had legally immigrated; and Tamerlan had been the subject of some FBI investigation."

According to the Washington Post, part of the reason law enforcement publicly released the surveillance images of the suspects was to counter the vigilante version of See Something, Say Something, to "limit the damage being done to people who were wrongly being targeted as suspects in the news media and on the Internet." Citizens were so eager to help that the FBI site was overwhelmed with 300,000 hits per minute, at times crashing when its servers were overloaded.

Investigators were concerned that if they didn't assert control over the release of the Tsarnaevs' photos, their manhunt would become a chaotic free-for-all, with news media cars and helicopters, as well as online vigilante detectives, competing with police in the chase to find the suspects. By stressing that all information had to flow to 911 and official investigators, the FBI hoped to cut off that freelance sleuthing and attend to public safety even as they searched for the brothers.

There are about 150 surveillance cameras operated by government entities in the Boston area. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said surveillance footage from the bombing shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev dropping his backpack and then calmly walking away from it before the bomb exploded. "It's pretty clear about his involvement and pretty chilling, frankly," Patrick said on NBC's "Meet the Press."


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