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 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT