This photo released by the FBI early Friday April 19, 2013, shows suspect 1, in black cap, and suspect number 2, in white cap, walking through the crowd in Boston on Monday, April 15, 2013, before the explosions at the Boston Marathon. Suspects were later identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. (FBI/AP)

Remember Big Brother, the dictator of the state of Oceania in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” who uses total surveillance to control the population? Spooky, right? Nothing we’d ever accept, right?

Well, sure, until we’re scared, and ready to turn to government to protect us from what we can’t protect ourselves from as individuals. When we’re afraid, public safety surveillance doesn’t bother us as much, because between preserving civil liberties and survival, survival wins, hands down.

Just how worried we are is reflected in how much government surveillance we are willing to tolerate.

A CBS/New York Times public opinion survey taken after the Boston Marathon bombings offers evidence of this fundamental truth of human nature: safety first and everything else follows. Eight out of 10 Americans say surveillance cameras in public places are a good idea. That’s not surprising, given the way the government publicized the surveillance pictures of the two bombers, even though those images came from private surveillance cameras and had nothing to do with catching the bombers.

That’s a point the American Civil Liberties Union makes as it opposes more Big Brother surveillance. The ACLU argues cameras that watch us everywhere — in public, where there is no legal right to or expectation of privacy — don’t deter crime. But in terms of public acceptance, it doesn’t matter if they work. If it feels like government surveillance makes us safer, we’ll support it. We only see surveillance as an invasion of privacy if we feel safe. And these days, many people don’t.

Consider the experience in the UK, where there are now 1.85 million cameras watching public places in a closed circuit television system. That’s a stunning 2.8 public and private surveillance cameras for every 100 people.

Some of them even have speakers, so officials monitoring the cameras can yell things like, “Hey you! Stop that!” if they see someone fighting, or littering.

Omnipresent surveillance is accepted by the majority of Britons, because the system arose out of the omnipresent threat of terrorist bombings in the 1970s and 80s. It doesn’t matter that terrorism is no longer so frequent in the UK. It still happens often enough to keep people worried, and that’s enough to keep support for surveillance strong.

We only see surveillance as an invasion of privacy if we feel safe. And these days, many people don’t.

Just how worried we are is reflected in how much government surveillance we are willing to tolerate. Most people do not support private surveillance; in those settings, we feel less exposed, better able to protect ourselves. When we feel safer, the seesaw of our emotions tilts the other way, and independent control over our own lives carries more weight than fear.

Evidence of that appears in a new CNN/Time/ORC survey, released lastweek. The poll found that while 81 percent of people are fine with more surveillance cameras watching us in public (which is 18 percent higher than it was right after the September 11 attacks), only 40 percent are willing to give up civil liberties in general, and only 38 percent say it would be OK for the government to eavesdrop on our phone calls or intercept our email.

People are arguing their case for more or less government surveillance with lots of facts, and great passion. But there is no right or wrong here, just our values and feelings, and this clear demonstration that the way we perceive and respond to risk is inherently affective and subjective. What will determine what we do about surveillance, as is the case with any risk, will ultimately have less to do with the facts than with how worried we feel.


Tags: Boston, Boston Marathon Bombings, Security

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  • Barry Kort

    Jahar Tsarnaev’s big brother, Tamerlan, was meshugena. He believed in vengeance (retributive justice).

    Our “big brother” is also meshugena. Our “big brother” also believes in violence to influence or control other people’s behavior. And not just a little violence. Our meshugena “big brother” believes in copious amounts of military and police violence, both at home and abroad. Our “big brother” is systematically teaching violence to the impressionable adolescents of the world. This is a meshugena practice. This is an unsustainable practice.

    The reciprocal, complementary, and ferchachta belief in violence makes me profoundly unsafe. It utterly terrifies me, in exactly the same way cancer is terrifying.

    Jahar Tsarnaev was dominated and intimidated by his big brother, Tamerlan.

    The American public is dominated and intimidate by our “big brother.”

    This is a meshugena state of affairs. This is a crazy-making cultural model.

  • Futo Buddy

    Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

    • CComry

      You should probably put that in quotes and give it its proper citation.

      • Futo Buddy

        everyone should have learned it in school.

  • Futo Buddy

    i feel like not enough people have read 1984 anymore

  • AmanaPlan

    We need surveillance of government employees and elected officials, corporations, and the powerful wealthy. We need to watch the watchers. Author David Brin wrote a book “The Transparent Society” about this some years ago. One of the topics he still writes and blogs about.

    • CComry

      You support putting wealthy people under surveillance? What probable cause do you have for advocating that?

  • SteveTheTeacher

    I am reminded of Senator Frank Church’s warning following his work investigating government “intelligence” agencies in the mid-70’s.

    “Th[e National Security Agency’s] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. [If a dictator ever took over, the N.S.A.] could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.“

    Aside from lining the pockets of those involved with the surveillance industry, I find the push for increasing surveillance an effort in futility in a democracy. No amount of security can get inside of a person’s head. Going down this route will lead to the government taking action against ever increasingly ambiguous civil activities – visiting certain types of websites, reading certain types of books, being critical of the government – thereby eroding democracy.

    Rather than increasing surveillance, how about increasing community. I’ll feel safer when we know that even the most disturbed have people who are involved enough in their lives to help guide them towards making better decisions.

  • rg

    There is something in between having surveillance and not having surveillance – after the fact surveillance. I like that cameras were able to quickly pick out the suspects from a crowd in Boston. I like that cameras can help solve crimes. I like that cameras act as some form of deterrent. Put them up and make rules about how they’re used – don’t let human beings monitor public places (maybe let computers, again with rules governing what they look for, they’ll won’t profile unless they’re programmed to) – and use them to quickly solve crimes only after they happen. Attacks of all sorts, kidnappings, property crime and even abuse of power can be more quickly, fairly and transparently solved if they were recorded when they happened.

  • CComry

    The part about some cameras being equipped with speakers in the UK, over which someone can yell at “misbehavors”, reminded me of the part of Nineteen-Eighty-Four where Winston gets yelled at over his telescreen for sandbagging his exercises.

    Anyway, with new technology comes new opportunities to put it to good use, and of course to abuse it. Remember that there was a time where a cop was not able to put all of your information off of a national database from the front seat of his/her patrol vehicle. No one bats an eye at that. We just accept it. As another commenter already said, perhaps a human on the other end of the camera 24/7 is not the answer, but rather a computer system designed to assist in investigating crimes.

    We cannot stop bad people from doing bad things. People with steal, hurt others, and, yes, blow things up. These are tragic facts of life. But we cannot sacrifice our liberty. Nothing is worth the cost of that.