Creating a Police State Mentality? Stronger Visual Surveillance of Public Places after the Boston Bombings

23 May 2013

By Dr. Quirine Eijkman

During the first US Congressional hearing on the Marathon bombings and in media reports, Boston’s police commissioner, Mr. Edward F. Davis III, advocated for stronger visual monitoring of public spaces. In the media he has also expressed interest in the use of aerial surveillance technology (domestic drones) during next year’s Marathon. Although Davis recognises the risk of creating a police state mentality, he told the Committee of Homeland Security that public authorities should consider investing more in visual surveillance. To quote him “images from cameras do not lie, […] they do not forget”. The question is whether more visual surveillance, such as Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras and recognition technologies would have led to the prevention of the bombing in the first place. The reality is that visual surveillance is far less effective in the fight against terrorism and serious crime than is sometimes assumed. Visual surveillance can breach human rights including equality standards, the right to privacy and data protection as well as the freedom of movement, expression and association.

Despite the fact that the Boston police commissioner has acknowledged the importance of community policing and the potential violation of civil rights – including the right to privacy – the risk of creating a police state remains, especially because visual surveillance in public areas is not always effective. CCTV cameras tend to be used for petty crime and disorderly behaviour rather than the prevention of terrorism. In the United Kingdom, for example, the average citizen is caught on surveillance cameras 70 times each day. Yet, most evaluation studies suggest that visual surveillance does not really contribute to the prevention of terrorism. Even if smart cameras were able to recognise “suspicious behaviour”, they are hardly able to detect the indicators of terrorism. There are no algorithms that identify and interpret the acts or thoughts of a potential terrorist!

Needless to say, visual surveillance can be useful post-incident for the identification of perpetrators and the gathering of evidence. Both in Boston in 2013 and in London in 2005 suspects were identified on the basis of CCTV images. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, for instance, the eldest of the two brothers believed to be responsible for the Boston Marathon attacks, was filmed by a surveillance camera of a restaurant located close to the place where the bombs went off. Furthermore, CCTV images can be used as evidence in court. In the criminal trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger brother, they will almost certainly play an important role.

Another issue is the amount of visual data recorded by surveillance cameras. The paradox is that due to increased visual surveillance, more digital images are collected and these have to be analysed by experts. Even though part of this process is conducted automatically, the outcome still has to be interpreted by law enforcement officials or employees of private companies. They determine if something or somebody poses a potential threat. Yet, analysis is only effective if you know what you are looking for. After the London bombings, the police were able to identify the four suspects, because they knew where the bombs were set off and approximately around what time. However, to predict if, when and where terrorists are going to strike is extremely complex and most of the time there is not enough human capacity to follow up on suspicious behaviour.

Furthermore, visual surveillance may interfere with some of the presumptions that underpin the relationship between the individual and the state. Camera surveillance may damage political legitimacy when citizens feel that they are treated unfairly by public authorities. The question of legitimacy is also related to the actual practice of surveillance measures. In 2011, Tufyal Choudhury and Helen Fenwick evaluated the effects of visual surveillance on a Muslim majority community in Birmingham in the United Kingdom. They concluded that these kinds of counter-terrorism measures can have a serious impact on the relationship between public authorities like law enforcement agencies and minority communities.

The use of visual surveillance cameras can lead to members of the public doubting the legitimacy of counter-terrorism measures, which will probably result in “significant community anger and loss of trust”. In the fight against terrorism, cooperation with local communities is extremely important. Across the globe security experts agree that those in the community are often better equipped to recognise the first signs of change in behaviour of neighbours that may indicate radicalisation. During the Committee of Homeland Security hearing, the Boston police commissioner also emphasised the importance of working with local communities including mosques and universities.

Hence, it remains a question whether public authorities should support the Boston’s police commissioner’s suggestion to invest more in visual surveillance of public places. As CCTV cameras and other forms of enhanced visual surveillance cannot counter, let alone prevent, terrorism effectively, it would be unwise to spend considerable public funds on this endeavour. Additionally, there is the risk that law enforcement and security agencies will rely too strongly on CCTV-images  without proper checks and balances. What happens if they do not properly take the context or individual circumstances into consideration? Is there a risk of being guilty by association – “being in the wrong place at the wrong time”? And who do citizens turn to when they feel they are unjustly monitored? Human rights, including the right to privacy and equal treatment, protect citizens against the power of state officials or private security officers that, due to far-reaching counter-terrorism measures, may develop a police state mentality. Therefore, monitoring of public places by surveillance cameras should remain an exception, even if it is for national security purposes. As several American privacy experts and civil liberties organisations remarked, there was already a lot of visual surveillance present at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. As Kate Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Massachusetts, argues, “overuse of surveillance is not the answer”. Also there should be some form of accountability for more visual surveillance. If not, there is a risk that more visual surveillance will lead to the creation of a police state.