Social & Domestic Issues

Chicago, Houston Consider Cameras in Private Businesses, Homes

George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984 opens with a surveillance helicopter chopping its blades menacingly through London, peeking inside apartment buildings. The protagonist, a conscience-stricken state worker with no way to blow the whistle, goes home to a "telescreen" watching and reporting his every word, move and even mood.

The totalitarian state apparatus of Orwell’s bleak vision was patterned after the world’s Communist parties. But many of today’s 21st-century Democrat and Republican politicians see no problem with the kind of permanent police dragnet envisioned in the novel.

While Orwell’s homeland of the United Kingdom is still the most-surveilled on Earth, recent actions by two big-city mayors will help the United States in the race to capture this dubious honor.

Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley, heir to decades of ruthless Democrat machine politics, has been on a camera binge for quite some time now. In late 2004, Daley’s Chicago announced plans to install an elaborate network of surveillance cameras in the city. Initially 2,000 cameras strong, the network is designed for ever-expanding, infinite capacity. And this camera network is to have a special feature: software that alerts police to allegedly "suspicious" behavior detected on camera. It sounds like something from the film "Minority Report," but many studies of similar behavioral-algorithm systems have shown high rates of false positives — "hits" on innocent people. So, watch out — if the software decides you’re "wandering aimlessly," a heavily-armed SWAT team may not be far behind.

That software, paid for with a multimillion dollar grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security, was set to go online in March 2006 — next month. At the time, Daley justified the surveillance net to the New York Times by saying, "We’re not inside your home or your business. The city owns the sidewalks. We own the streets and we own the alleys."

But now that the system’s software is set to go live, Daley says cameras on street corners and train platforms just aren’t enough for him. Yep, just 15 months later, Daley is ready to admit that he does indeed want eyes inside your private business. He endorsed last week a bill pending in the City Council to require police surveillance in private buildings.

Under the plan, private businesses that remain open more than 12 hours a day and bars that remain open until last call would have to install the cameras also. The bill as written now would not require that businesses hook up their mandatory cameras to city networks, but Chicago Tribune reports that eventually, "the city does plan to link cameras in office and apartment buildings and other private properties to its system."

If you thought that was bad, get a load of what’s going on in Houston. There, the police chief wants cameras placed in commercial downtown Houston. As opposed to the situation in Chicago, where the camera plan was introduced with a public-relations focus on placing the cameras in high-crime areas of town, downtown Houston is a high-pedestrian, low-crime area.

What exactly are the cameras there for? (Maybe Houston police will follow the lead of the Alabama State Troopers who, finding themselves at a control panel of cameras in a low-crime area, used them to ogle college girls.)

And here’s the kicker: Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt is also advocating that the local building code be changed to require that private apartment complexes install surveillance cameras. Hurtt even said he wants cameras installed, telescreen-style, in private single-family homes if he decides there have been "too many" calls for police assistance from the home.

Hurtt invoked the name of Orwell’s dictator in defending his radical proposition: "I know a lot of people are concerned about Big Brother, but my response to that is if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?"

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is supposed to guarantee protection from unreasonable searches. Hurtt’s desire, like Daley’s to constantly watch presumably innocent Americans on private property is both unreasonable and unconstitutional.

Democrat Mayor Bill White, who appointed Hurtt, has been equivocating about Hurtt’s outrageous idea as the public reaction is tested. If enough Houstonians stand up for their rights to private property, White presumably won’t push through the extreme surveillance program. But if Texans don’t stand for the idea that a man’s home is his castle, the plan will almost assuredly move ahead.

And camera fever isn’t confined to just those two cities. Voters in Philadelphia, birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, may have a chance to weigh in. A city councilman there wants to put the idea of cameras in high-crime areas to a popular vote. Philadelphians may want to consider the example of Chicago and Houston before embarking what is likely to be a slippery slope.

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