New York Times

New York Times Sunday Magazine – by Jeffrey Rosen A Cautionary Tale for a New Age of Surveillance. Biometrics is a feel-good technology that is being marketed based on a false promise — that the database will be limited to suspected terrorists. But the FaceIt technology, as it's now being used in England, isn't really intended to catch terrorists at all. It's intended to scare local hoodlums into thinking they might be setting off alarms even when the cameras are turned off. I came to understand this ''Wizard of Oz'' aspect of the technology when I visited Bob Lack's monitoring station in the London borough of Newham. A former London police officer, Lack attracted national attention — including a visit from Tony Blair — by pioneering the use of face-recognition technology before other people were convinced that it was entirely reliable. What Lack grasped early on was that reliability was in many ways beside the point.

Once thousands of cameras from hundreds of separate CCTV systems are able to feed their digital images to a central monitoring station, and the images can be analyzed with face- and behavioral-recognition software to identify unusual patterns, then the possibilities of the Panopticon will suddenly become very real. And few people doubt that connectivity is around the corner; it is, in fact, the next step. ''CCTV will become the fifth utility: after gas, electricity, sewage and telecommunications,'' says Jason Ditton, a criminologist at the University of Sheffield who is critical of the technology's expansion. ''We will come to accept its ubiquitousness.''

Last year, Britain's violent crime rates actually increased by 4.3 percent, even though the cameras continued to proliferate. But CCTV cameras have a mysterious knack for justifying themselves regardless of what happens to crime. When crime goes up the cameras get the credit for detecting it, and when crime goes down, they get the credit for preventing it.

Of course there are some liberties that should be sacrificed in times of national emergency if they give us greater security. But Britain's experience in the fight against terrorism suggests that people may give up liberties without experiencing a corresponding increase in security. And if we meekly accede in the construction of vast feel-good architectures of surveillance that have far-reaching social costs and few discernible social benefits, we may find, in calmer times, that they are impossible to dismantle. [Privacy Digest]

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