The choppy, low-resolution videos of the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects released by the FBI last Thursday were disappointing. They didn't show the men head-on because, presumably, they didn't have those images yet.
Shouldn't the government have had more footage, better footage?
That line of thinking—which I shared at the time—has since spurred politicians and media to bellow for more video surveillance of US cities. "I do think we need more cameras," GOP representative Peter King of New York said in response to the bombings. Later that week, Slate declared, "We Need More Cameras, and We Need Them Now," in a piece saying, "We should think about how cameras could help prevent crimes, not just solve them once they've already happened." And Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel added that more cameras are "not just for big events like a marathon, but day-to-day purposes."
After all, more surveillance is easy to pull off. Video cameras are relatively inexpensive, storing data gets easier and easier, and law enforcement has never met a camera it didn't like (except cameras designed to record cops, naturally). England has roughly four million cameras, and London has an estimated half-million. By comparison, US cities have very few. After 9/11, about 3,000 surveillance cameras were installed in Lower Manhattan, which served as an example of how after a terrorist attack, America's traditional resistance to casual surveillance can get blown up by the terrorists, too.
Because of how much fear a terrorist attack can incite, "typically, there is a public response to try to throw everything we can at a problem like this so it doesn't happen again," says Adam Molnar, a PhD candidate conducting research on security for major sporting events at the University of Victoria.
In Seattle recently, Mayor Mike McGinn shut down a Seattle Police Department drone program after the public protested their use and even city officials questioned drones' efficacy in fighting crime. Meanwhile, whether or not the city will turn on a network of federally funded surveillance cameras in West Seattle remains contentious. Outside of Seattle, though, a lot of prominent voices are calling for more surveillance.
But whether cameras make us significantly safer is debatable. The BBC recently reported that for every 1,000 cameras in London, only one crime is solved. And whether they prevent crime, as Slate suggests, is even more disputed. The crime rate in London didn't drop after spending the equivalent of $807 million on cameras. The New York Times also reported in 2009 that "New York University says they do not deter it much, if at all," and out of four other studies, only one found a drop in serious crimes while three others were inconclusive. Some research finds that perpetrators of serious crimes may avoid cameras, simply displacing where terrorist attacks might occur, Molnar says.
Granted, in the case of marathons, more cameras seem pragmatic (at least as temporary installations). But does that mean they should be everywhere else? Every city corner, every park, every coastline? Should we put them up now and leave them up indefinitely?
"We're concerned about America becoming a place in which cameras are so pervasive that we can't go about our lives without being tracked by the government," says Jamela Debelak, technology and liberty director for the ACLU of Washington. She adds that we need "controls on how long data is stored, and there should be public input on the policies."
The question isn't whether cameras should ever be used (again, everyone agrees that sometimes they should be), but how much America throws itself whole-hog—along with billions of dollars—into permanent video surveillance.
Yes, yes, I know. Cameras are already around, our online activity is already watched, our privacy is already lost. Under that line of thinking, what does it matter if the government installs a few million new cameras in urban centers?
Consider our nation's reaction to 9/11: Afghanistan, Iraq, a spike in hate crimes against racial minorities, the Patriot Act. While I don't disagree with everything the United States did—we should try to dismantle Al Qaeda, for example—invading Iraq (based in part on faulty surveillance) was a drastic overreaction, so I'm skeptical of our government's knee-jerk reaction to terrorism.
Should we react to the Boston bombings with the same blind patriotism as we did with 9/11?
Raising this sort of question may be politically toxic right now (lots of experts declined to comment for this article), but raising tough questions about the Patriot Act and the Iraq war was politically toxic at the time, too—and raising questions about the Patriot Act and the Iraq war was the right thing to do.
"Even though this [bombing] is a very rare event, we tend to exaggerate the threat going down the road," Molnar says, referring to the Boston Marathon. "We are not just introducing technology to prevent, deter, or enhance the possibility for arrest and capture, we are also changing the way we relate to one another."
"We turn communities of trust into communities of fear," he warns.
We should react to the knee-jerk calls for more surveillance—"more" and "now"—with a whole lot of skepticism. No matter the rah-rah rhetoric from politicians or the media, we need to take our time in questioning the evidence to decide whether permanent surveillance networks in US cities are the security panacea they're made out to be. Even if it's not the popular thing to do.