Surveillance cameras won’t reduce violent crime in Halifax because they do nothing to solve the deeper problems of poverty, racism and youth alienation. But we shouldn’t be surprised that Halifax police are testing them anyway. We live in a society addicted to quick techno-fixes, even if there’s little evidence that they work. The human rights organization Privacy International reports that in Britain, where there’s one surveillance camera for every 14 people, a government study showed last year that in areas with cameras installed “crime did not show a statistically significant decrease and even increased in a majority of areas for unknown reasons.” The Scottish Centre for Criminology also found in a 2002 study that crime increased in many areas with cameras and that street lighting is a more effective deterrent.
So why are we testing expensive cameras in downtown Halifax? French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that modern bureaucratic societies routinely use surveillance as a means of exerting power and control. The cameras sprouting up everywhere are only part of it. Social insurance numbers track where we live and work and how much we earn. Health and hospital cards monitor our use of medicare. And the mandatory photo-IDs on driver’s licences let traffic cops see at a glance if we really are who we say we are. This year Statistics Canada used data software from Lockheed Martin, the giant US arms maker, to help it conduct the 2006 census. Credit cards, debit cards, customer loyalty cards, the list goes on as state or private bureaucracies gather information to help them collect taxes, sell things and in some cases, monitor work performance and guard against theft. Surveillance is such a natural part of everyday life that when a pollster asked Canadians recently if they’d favour mandatory national ID cards, more than half of those questioned said yes.
In the US, surveillance became an obsession after 9/11, with authorities secretly gathering information from millions of phone calls, email messages and financial transactions. In 2003, the US Congress cut off funds for a Pentagon office that was developing “Total Information Awareness”—a giant database with comprehensive information on every citizen gleaned from passport applications, visas, driver’s licences, car rentals, airline ticket purchases as well as credit transactions and education, medical, housing and criminal records. In 2004, the Associated Press reported that much of the ongoing research on the massive spy program had been quietly transferred to US intelligence agencies.
The CBS program 60 Minutes reported recently that before 9/11, the US had 16 names on its secret No Fly List. Now the 540-page list, leaked to CBS, contains 44,000 names including such common ones as Gary Smith and John Williams. CBS interviewed 12 Robert Johnsons who reported they’re pulled aside for lengthy questioning and extensive searches every time they try to fly. One was forced to strip. “I had to take off my pants, I had to take off my sneakers, then I had to take off my socks. I was treated like a criminal,” he said.
Let’s be thankful that things aren’t nearly as bad in Canada. In its survey of 36 countries, Privacy International found that Canada and Germany ranked first for protection of privacy. Malaysia and China came last. The report criticized Britain for its high levels of surveillance and concluded the US had the weakest protection of privacy laws in the democratic world.
Surveillance cameras in Halifax may be a quick band-aid to relieve political pressure on city politicians and police. They may satisfy the bureaucratic craving for surveillance. But the cameras are as useless for solving Halifax’s crime problem as mayor Kelly’s recent meeting with downtown bar owners. What we really need is a well-planned “summit” that brings together politicians, police, a wide range of experts, citizen’s groups, and the public, including young people, to talk about the root causes of violent crime and how to tackle them effectively.
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