In mid-July, the Telegraph newspaper reported that the UK is using covert surveillance to monitor conversations in an effort to detect behavior that could be conceived as threatening. In addition, it was announced that the country’s police traffic network camera system is being used to monitor drivers’ movements and to keep a database of all relevant information for up to two years.
Add those two to an already controversial decision to require all Internet records to be stored for a year and tracking devices used to covertly track citizens and the UK would seem to have the makings for a perfect storm of privacy concerns. That doesn’t even take into account the more than 4 million surveillance cameras already in place.
The possibility of similar measures coming across the pond may seem highly unlikely, according to experts, especially under an Obama administration that praises transparency. But is it really? Just over a year ago, a bill was proposed to stop a program called the National Applications Office from ever starting up. The NAO was a program designed to use military satellites to keep tabs on Americans whether in their home or in the public and then share that information with law enforcement officials at all levels.
However, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ended the program, after a five-month review, before it came to fruition.
At the time of her decision, she said in a news release that, “This action will allow us to focus our efforts on more effective information sharing programs that better meet the needs of law enforcement, protect the civil liberties and privacy of all Americans, and make our country more secure.”
But even the idea of a program such as the NAO raises the question of whether the U.S. is headed down the same road as the UK, with increased surveillance as we never seen before.
In some ways, that has already started, with various cities across the country taking measures into their own hands when it comes to surveillance. Chicago has more than 10,000 public and private cameras used for surveillance, with plans to add more. New York City has about 4,200 surveillance cameras. None of the U.S. efforts come close to the UK, but the foundation has been laid. And it is being laid at the local level.
“In the U.S., we see signs of increasing numbers of cameras in cities between governments and private parities,” said John Verdi, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “You’re seeing a push and pull across the country. Now, there is no move to federalize it, it is a local issue. It is driven by local groups, politicians. They are getting some federal money, but it’s all at the municipal level.”
While cities may be leading the charge, could it be only a matter of time before the federal government takes the lead?
“It is a concern,” Verdi said. “But I don’t see it happening for two reasons: it is fairly expensive and it is fairly ineffective. As we saw in Times Square, one of the most densely populated camera areas, with the bomb just over a month ago, it was vendors on the street who noticed the van before the cameras did, even though it was on camera for quite awhile.”
Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, added, “In the UK, in cases of crime and public misconduct, you’re more likely to be on visual record. Here in the U.S., we value the sense of not always being monitored by some official surveillance. It’s part of the American preference for freedom from official intrusion. It’s part of our national character.”
But should American’s citizens be concerned that a government agency is listening in to their conversations or watching their every action?
“Still quite a gap separates us from the UK,” Aftergood said. “But there’s a perceptible temptation in increase surveillance, especially in areas of high crime or perceived threat.”