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Friday, November 28, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 7/7/2001

Is Big Brother looming?

In the next few years, politicians will almost certainly be asked to sort out what promises to be a messy conflict between the privacy of American citizens and their security.

Consider reports from the news pages just last week:

  • The Colorado bureau that oversees the licensure of motorists has begun an effort to scan into a computer all driver license photos in the state. They plan to then link the data to a new computer program from Europe that “maps” faces so it can catch people who try to steal the identity of others or attempt to obtain multiple licenses under different names.

    The agency said that, for now, it does not intend to share its information with law enforcement authorities unless it finds an egregious case of identification theft, but officials there acknowledge the system could be a powerful police tool in the future.

  • Tampa, Fla., police said last week they have installed dozens of cameras in an entertainment district of their city to scan faces of people there. Those faces are then instantly run through a computer program to see if they match any suspects in a database of fugitives from justice.

    If a match is found, officers are quickly dispatched to the scene.

    The cameras were installed in the interest of public safety, police say.

  • In London, England, cameras have been installed along roadways to catch speeding drivers.

  • A Florida car rental company admitted last week it has installed global positioning satellite units in all of its cars to monitor the driving habits of renters. Those who violate speed laws are fined by the company, whether or not they are cited by law enforcement agencies.

  • Bob Latta, the Ohio state representative from Bowling Green who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, announced last week he is pushing a bill that would allow cities across the state to install cameras to catch motorists who run red lights. Several intersections in Toledo are already patrolled by such cameras.

    Mr. Latta cited the hundreds of people in Ohio who die each year in auto accidents caused by those who run red lights as reason to pursue wider camera use.

    Do these reports represent a natural and sensible progression toward a safer society? Or do they represent the beginning of a Big Brother syndrome that will eventually strip citizens of their privacy?

    Technological advancements have brought to the foreground a classic conflict between the freedom of individuals and their security.

    Toledo's City Council has approved (by a unanimous vote) the use of the red-light cameras, but has not yet wrestled with the question of wider government video surveillance of the public. Two prominent at-large council challengers - Democrat Perlean Griffin and Republican George Sarantou - say they have concerns about the loss of personal privacy in Toledo.

    “Given the number of individuals in our city that sometimes ignore traffic lights, I think the red-light cameras are necessary for public safety,” Ms. Griffin said.

    “But as we begin to further expand the types of [camera] initiatives, we have to move forward very cautiously to make sure we include concerns about privacy rights.”

    Mr. Sarantou agreed.

    “We do have to let those cameras work,” he said. “I think the jury is out” just yet. “It's like seat belts. How do you know how many lives you are saving?”

    While he said it is the role of government to ensure the public safety - to make sure the roadways we drive, the water we drink, and the restaurant food we eat won't harm us - city council should be very circumspect in how it proceeds when it comes to public surveillance.

    “I have a real problem putting cameras out in the public square. There has got to be a balanced approach. What I don't want to see is growth of the Big Brother mechanism in our country. That frightens me,” Mr. Sarantou said.

    “When you look at our great country, we were founded on the idea of liberty and justice for all,” Mr. Sarantou said. “You pay a price for freedom.”

    That price, he said, may be that police don't know everything about everyone. Ms. Griffin called it a “fine line” that council must constantly regulate.

    Both candidates said they understand law enforcement officials will want the newest tools available to fight crime, because that is their job. They both said the protection of the rights of citizens is a role local politicians must accept, and take seriously.

    At risk with that stance is the political support of officers and their union leaders, who could paint candidates with such views as being “anti-police” or “anti-safety.” It is a risk, they said, they are willing to take.

    Mr. Sarantou, a veteran of dozens of Block Watch meetings, said he prefers “old-fashioned crime-fighting techniques” to newfangled technological surveillance.

    He said that instead of scaring citizens off the streets to avoid city cameras, the government should be encouraging them to come out into the light of day to interact with the people next door.

    “This is exactly the message we need to be sending,” he said.

    Fritz Wenzel covers politics for The Blade. Email him at fritz@theblade.com.



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