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Published: Wednesday, 10/27/2010

Eye on disaster

Most Ohioans don't actively fear that government officials would use public and private cameras across the state to spy on residents. But many are skeptical, and rightly so, when officials say public employees would never invade their privacy.

The Ohio Department of Homeland Security is linking public cameras that monitor roads and airports with private cameras at schools, malls, and elsewhere in a single network. Police, firefighters, and other authorized personnel will have access to these thousands of eyes in an emergency so that they can respond more effectively.

It's a good idea, but safeguards against misuse can't be left to chance. If people have the ability to do something, eventually they will. Government workers aren't supposed to snoop on personal data about state residents. But in the cases of Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher and Crystal Bowersox, they did.

So when the state's executive director of homeland security, William Vedra, says the system is “not Big Brother,” Ohioans respond: Not yet. When they're assured that private businesses won't be forced to join, people reply: Not today. And when officials say they aren't interested in watching all the time or everywhere, people say: Not now.

George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four shows what happens when government gains too much power to monitor what people do. It can't be assumed that future governments will be bound by promises that are made today.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the federal government used existing and new laws to prevent future attacks by seeking out those who would do us harm. But the abuse of devices such as national-security letters to gather information on potential suspects showed how easy it is for the civil liberties of ordinary, law-abiding people to be trampled in the hunt for terrorists.

In Ohio, there have to be strict rules about who will have access to what, under what conditions. The penalties for misconduct must be stringent and clear. Even then, as the cases of Mr. Wurzelbacher and Ms. Bowersox remind us, there will be abuses.

Using on-site cameras to help responders react to disasters likely will save lives. That doesn't mean that fears about misuse should be dismissed as paranoia.

An old joke says: You're not paranoid if they're really out to get you. The best way to make sure they aren't out to get you is to pay attention.



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