Saturday, April 19, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

"Big Brother" is allowed to watch you on a public street

"Big Brother" is allowed to watch you on a public street

I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't read George Orwell's "1984" until a few years ago, after reading so many writers comparing the real-life events of America in the 2000s to Orwell's (pictured at top) iconic dystopia. The book has had quite an influence on me. In fact, the opening quote in my book "Tear Down This Myth" -- "'Who controls the past,' ran the party slogan, 'controls the future: Who controls the present, controls the past'"-- comes directly from the pages of "1984."

But there's one thing about "1984" that gets a lot of hype that I see differently from a lot of people, and that is the concept of 21st Century surveillance cameras and whether that means "Big Brother is watching you." This was addressed over the weekend in an Inquirer op-ed:

While Orwell did not see Nineteen Eighty-Four as a prophetic work, some of his concerns about the future have taken on a new urgency.

According the Times of London, the average English person is recorded on camera 300 times a day. By one estimate, there are 4.2 million closed-circuit television cameras operating in England today, accumulating personal data that is filed away by the government.

The next day, a story with a (sort of) local angle was the most popular piece on the Los Angeles Times web site:

Reporting from Lancaster, Pa. - This historic town, where America's founding fathers plotted during the Revolution and Milton Hershey later crafted his first chocolates, now boasts another distinction.

It may become the nation's most closely watched small city.

Some 165 closed-circuit TV cameras soon will provide live, round-the-clock scrutiny of nearly every street, park and other public space used by the 55,000 residents and the town's many tourists. That's more outdoor cameras than are used by many major cities, including San Francisco and Boston.

While most citizens sound supportive, some made the inevitable comparisons to Orwell:

"No one has the right to know who goes in and out my front door," agreed David Mowrer, a laborer for a company that supplies quarry pits. "That's my business. That's not what America is about."

Actually, Mowrer is wrong -- nothing could more un-American than preventing people from watching who goes in or out his front door, provided that they are standing on a public street or sidewalk where citizens have the right to travel and assemble freely.

One of the things that I believe most strongly in is the right of a free press, and one of those rights -- upheld by our courts -- is the right of news photographers to take and publish photos of what can be viewed on a public street, even if that view takes in private property. Thus, when the newspaper does a story on the corruption of a public figure like state Sen. Vince Fumo with your tax dollars, we have the right to stand on the street in front of his opulent mansion in Fairmount, supported by those ill-gotten gains, and take a picture.

What would be Orwellian would be denying that right. Police surveillance cameras -- presuming they're set up legally -- show the same thing that a patrol officer now sees when he drives up your block every couple of hours. Do you think police patrolling your street is an invasion of privacy? I doubt it. Preventing views of what happens on a public street? That's in essence of what the goons on the streets of Tehran are doing right this very minute.

These 24/7 cameras are simply advanced technology, and that clearly makes people uncomfortable.  But if Americans are truly worried about "Big Brother," then they should be up in arms over the government's unlawful reading of private emails and monitoring of your private phone calls. That would have made even Orwell cringe. But I guess it's not as visible -- or as sexy -- as a shiny surveillance cam.

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Will Bunch
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