Who's watching Big Brother while he's watching you?
By Michael Lewis
Our front-page report last week seemed comforting: We're getting surveillance cameras throughout Miami to help control terrorism.
Then I thought about it: What terrorism? Unless I've missed something, terror in Miami is limited to the halls of government.
But Police Chief John Timoney is rejoicing that we're to get an untold number of cameras at $27,000 apiece, funded from our federal income taxes, to monitor first downtown Miami and then Brickell, Coconut Grove and the northeast area of the city.
"The primary benefit is it's meant as an anti-terrorism initiative," he said.
Maybe so, but cameras everywhere conjure images of Allen Funt and George Orwell, breeding an entirely different kind of terror.
You don't remember Allen Funt? He's the guy who created the "Candid Camera" show. People would be hoaxed into doing and saying embarrassing things in what they thought was a private conversation and then be told, "Smile, you're on "Candid Camera,'" a secretly filmed segment to let television viewers laugh at their plight.
And George Orwell? In 1949, he wrote "1984," looking ahead to a police state headed by Big Brother where everyone was under constant surveillance. In every public place hung a large portrait of the leader, captioned "Big Brother is watching you." Here's part of the book's fifth paragraph:
"The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."
Orwell was ahead of his time, but a book titled "2007" would need a few changes: Surveillance cameras can be rigged to pick up whispers, and darkness is no impediment to their snooping. How ominous they are depends on how they'd be used and by whom.
Miami is not alone in putting cameras everywhere. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government has been pumping money into almost all major cities for cameras to spy for terrorists — and to monitor all of us in the process.
It's not yet as bad as in London, Orwell's setting for "1984," where hidden cameras now record the average citizen about 300 times a day. But erase any thought that just because you're alone you're also unobserved.
Police say that's just fine. In the process of scanning for terrorists who haven't materialized, they're picking off criminals who get in the range of cameras meant to trap far bigger game.
A youngster who punched a victim and stole his wallet on a Newark, NJ, street was arrested this month, the first payoff from a series of 32 cameras installed there.
"I kind of feel like a kid on Christmas morning," said Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy as he awaits 95 more surveillance cameras.
The question is whether Newark residents are markedly better off because after they get punched and robbed someone may get arrested but meanwhile everyone in town is under surveillance in a program that has the Orwellian title Community Eye.
It's already taken hold in nearby East Orange, NJ, which has had spy cameras for two years. Said Newark Mayor Robert Bowser: "The word is out there that there are eyes watching you."
For better or worse, there goes all privacy.
"You don't have a presumption of privacy in public sections of the city," says John Firman, a researcher with the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "If cameras are used with the right policies and procedures, privacy issues should never become a problem."
But as Orwell's protagonist Winston wondered, who knew who was watching or what they were doing with it? Who oversees the Thought Police?
We'd like to think police, of all people, are above reproach. As they monitor us on some quiet street surreptitiously adjusting some very tight undergarment, we'd like to think they turn off the camera or avert their eyes. But maybe they're recording the whole thing for laughs for the boys at the station house — or worse.
We'd like to trust them. But the police who are so anxious to get the added crime-control benefit of a series of anti-terrorist cameras downtown are the same police who for years have been solemnly assuring us that downtown's crime is Miami's lowest — so what is the need?
On the other hand, these are the same officers who last week accused their top leaders of falsifying crime statistics just to make them seem low. Even the police, it seems, don't trust police surveillance.
It has gotten so serious that Chief Timoney has called on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to audit the city's crime statistics. Big Brother, it seems, has a bigger brother looking over his shoulder.
Meanwhile, unknown agents at the other end of those cameras will be looking over all of our shoulders, all the time.
Does that make you feel more secure?