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Big Brother is watching, from light poles and satellites



Published: Mon, July 9, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Two stories in recent days illustrate again the need for vigilance against the intrusion of Big Brother into Americans' everyday lives. Technology, unimaginable only a few years ago, is being used -- in one case by a police department, in the other by a private company.

Thirty-six eyes: In Tampa, Fla., police have installed 36 video cameras on poles in the Ybor City area, Tampa's center of nightlife.

The cameras scan the crowds, capturing faces on film that are then digitally compared by computers with faces of fugitives in the police department's data base. If a match is made, police can swoop in and make a collar.

The Associated Press reports that such systems have been used in European cities, U.S. government offices, casinos and banks, but this is the first time face recognition cameras have been put into casual use in a U.S. city.

It is the first, and it should be the last.

Americans ought to be able to go about their business without being under government surveillance. It's a fundamental right.

Some law enforcement authorities use ends-justifies-the-means arguments to defend such surveillance. They say the benefits of apprehending criminals outweigh the invasion of privacy for ordinary citizens.

The larger danger is that Americans will get used to being on camera, turning every citizen into a player on a huge reality TV show. The gradual and total erosion of the expectation of privacy will inevitably alter the way Americans think of themselves.

We are an independent people -- just a few days ago we celebrated that fact -- and we are a nation with a strongly developed sense of individual liberty. Those values are not compatible with police surveillance systems.

Just as the technology that's being used would have been hard to imagine 10 or 20 years ago, it is impossible to predict just where acceptance of this kind of surveillance will lead 10 or 20 years from now. But we're quite sure it's not a place where most Americans would want to be.

Look, up in the sky: The second case of surveillance is of a different kind and involves not the government but a private company.

A New Haven, Conn., car rental company used a satellite tracking system not only to track where its car was being driven, but the speed at which it was traveling. The company then "fined" the renter $150 for each speeding violation, for a total of $450.

We suppose that if a rental contract prohibits the driver from taking a car outside a certain area, there is justification for keeping track of its whereabouts. Certainly if the car isn't brought back on time, the company has a right to locate it.

But if a company is going to track a motorist's whereabouts, the motorist should be told exactly how and how often. Likewise, if the tracking is expanded from simple positioning to the monitoring of speed or driving habits, the motorists should be told.

Given that information, the renter can decide whether to use that company or another one. Such free choice is in keeping with the American way.




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