Skip to main content

Surveillance state no answer to terror

By Neil M. Richards, Special to CNN
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Tue April 23, 2013
A police forensics team examines a boat in a yard on April 22, 2013, on Franklin Street in Watertown, Massachusetts, where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was discovered. A police forensics team examines a boat in a yard on April 22, 2013, on Franklin Street in Watertown, Massachusetts, where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was discovered.
HIDE CAPTION
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Neil Richards: After Boston terror attack, some call for more surveillance. That's a bad idea
  • He says cameras helped ID suspects, but it was the police system that worked
  • He says more cameras would be costly, could not stand in for humans
  • Richards: Punish those who abuse freedom, hurt others; don't take liberties away

Editor's note: Neil Richards is a professor of law at Washington University. He tweets about privacy at @neilmrichards and is the author of the recent Harvard Law Review article, "The Dangers of Surveillance."

(CNN) -- Since last week's Boston Marathon bombing, some people have called for placing more surveillance cameras in America's cities. This would be a mistake. It would be dangerous to our civil liberties, and it would be bad policy.

I felt last week's tragic events personally -- as a parent of young children, a runner and a graduate of Bedford High School in the Boston area. And it's easy to see why those extraordinary images made us all more sensitive to the everyday possibility of danger.

Neil Richards
Neil Richards

But the big picture is this: In a very unusual set of circumstances, two bad guys set off bombs. They killed three people, and injured many more. The people of Boston refused to be terrorized, and they worked with the police to catch those responsible in a few short days. Even under these extraordinary circumstances, our system worked. Bad people did bad things, but we found the suspects and we caught them.

Surveillance cameras of course played a part. They probably allowed the suspects to be identified more quickly, and they will surely provide useful evidence at the surviving suspect's criminal trial. Would more cameras have meant quicker apprehension of the suspects? There's no evidence to suggest this. And it's important to remember that there are already lots of cameras in Boston. And though some may believe that blanketing our public areas with video surveillance will make us safer, we should reject this call.

First, surveillance cameras are expensive. They are costly to install and maintain, and in a time of limited budgets, they could be mistaken for an adequate substitute for human police officers on the street. Should we trade off the cost of human police (or schools, or roads, or lower taxes) for even more robotic surveillance eyes? I don't think so.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Second, surveillance cameras don't necessarily deter serious crimes. Boston's numerous cameras didn't stop the crime at the Boston Marathon, nor did London's more extensive network of cameras deter the 2005 subway bombings. Boston's talented police commissioner, Edward Davis, put it best right after last Monday's events when he said that despite the city's extensive security preparations, little short of a "police state" could have stopped the attacks. It is to Davis' great credit that as police commissioner he didn't want a police state.

This brings me to my third point. Surveillance cameras, or other government surveillance technologies, have costs in civil liberties as well as in money. Surveillance cameras like we already have in Boston are like having a police officer with perfect memory on every street corner. It might be relatively easy to say that even more video cameras would amplify that effect while posing little threat to privacy.

But surveillance cameras are getting better, and it's now possible to pair them with facial recognition technology linked to state driver's license databases. When this technology matures, it'll give the police the power to monitor all of our movements in public linked to our real identities, not just to our anonymous faces.

Should the U.S. government have known?
Suspects called aunt to say 'I love you'
Boston pauses to remember

Such a system would conceivably give the government increased power over us, power that could be used not just to monitor, but in some cases, potentially, to blackmail, persuade or discriminate. Police on every corner might be one thing, but police who can instantly see your identity papers and constantly track you are another. We might decide we want a limited version of this system, but we need to talk about these things now, before well-meaning local governments make the decision for us.

It might be difficult to hear, but we can't be perfectly safe all the time. And part of living in a free and open society means that occasionally some people will abuse that freedom. That's why we have a criminal justice system in which the police investigate crimes. It's better to punish the people who abuse their freedom and harm others than to take everyone's liberties away and subject us all to the eye of the state.

Less privacy, less civil liberties. Being constantly observed might make us feel slightly safer, but this would be only an illusion of safety. History has shown repeatedly that broad government surveillance powers inevitably get abused, whether by the Gestapo, the Stasi, or our own FBI, which engaged in unlawful surveillance (and blackmail) of "dangerous" people like Martin Luther King Jr.

Last week's events gripped our attention because they were extraordinary. Terror attacks, plane crashes, even school shootings stick in our head out of all proportion to the danger they pose to us as individual citizens precisely because they are extraordinary.

But remember the big picture. How many people do you know who have been the victims of terrorism? On the other hand, how many people do you know who have suffered from cancer, or obesity, or gun violence? If we're interested in safety, public health and gun control are much more important issues than terrorism. They, not surveillance, should be our safety priority.

We should honor last week's victims. We should praise the Bostonians, police and private citizens, who helped find the culprits. But we should also rest secure that our system of government is working. We should reject, like Edward Davis did last week, any call to move further towards a police state.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Neil Richards.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT