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 Monday, April 22, on Franklin Street in Watertown, Massachusetts, where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was discovered. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/us/boston-bombings-galleries/index.html'>See all photography related to the Boston bombings.</a> A police forensics team examines a boat in a yard on Monday, April 22, on Franklin Street in Watertown, Massachusetts, where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was discovered. See all photography related to the Boston bombings.
HIDE CAPTION
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
Evidence photos from Boston
<<
<
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 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT