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A camera here, a camera there

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By Rob Witwer

At what point will we finally have enough surveillance cameras? It’s hard to go anywhere without being watched by at least one, and often several, closed-circuit eyes in the sky. On a typical five-minute walk in downtown Denver, you don’t have to look very hard to find 20 or more cameras. They’re on lampposts, the sides of buildings, on ceilings, atop traffic lights and along walls. Google sends around cars with digital cameras mounted on top to take pictures of our houses (if you don’t believe me, check out Google Maps and look up the “street view” of your own house).

Everywhere, it seems, you’re being monitored.

In 2008, the Washington Post reported on the efforts of Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier to increase video monitoring of the city. Lanier wants to build a comprehensive network of cameras eyeing the activities of D.C. residents, as other cities have done before. “London is often credited with having the most extensive network — 500,000 cameras that make up the ‘Ring of Steel,’ dating to the early 1990s,” the Post reported.

“I’d love to have the whole city wired like London,” Lanier told the Post.

But it turns out that the British aren’t too wild about the watchful eye of Big Brother. About a year ago, the Daily Mail reported that “Britain has one and a half times as many surveillance cameras as communist China, despite having a fraction of its population … (t)here are 4.2 million closed-circuit TV cameras here, one per every 14 people.”

One for every 14 people? That’s incredible.

In the opinion of some, such extensive monitoring raises questions about the very nature of the government that engages in it. Citing the “worrying obsession” with surveillance, Simon Davies of the group Privacy International told the Daily Mail that, “as far as surveillance goes, Britain has created the blueprint for the 21st-century non-democratic regime.”

But the cameras are necessary to prevent crime, we’re told. Not so fast. In a recent CBS News report, Jim Harper of the Cato Institute questioned the record of cameras in preventing crime. The loss of privacy, Harper argues, far outweighs the benefits. “People in most cities are probably captured on cameras daily, if not multiple times a day,” Harper told CBS. “As these cameras network together, and as they are better capable at recognizing individual faces, people will realize just how they are being watched.”

And who exactly is monitoring the images captured by these cameras? The police, of course, watch some. But many cameras are in the hands of private industries. And while some crimes may be prevented, in the vast majority of cases, it’s simply the innocent daily activities of ordinary citizens being captured. In many cases that information is recorded and stored. For how long, we don’t know.

Does this trouble you?

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”