Staff Columnist

The surveillance cameras are here to stay

Traffic moves through the S-curve on I-380 in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic moves through the S-curve on I-380 in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Cedar Rapids officials are making plans to turn their controversial speed cameras back on after the Iowa Supreme Court earlier this year affirmed the city’s authority to use them. Those are just a few of the recording devices that could be used to track your movements.

It’s a safe bet that the use of cameras will continue to grow, including in ways we can’t yet imagine. Technology allows us to purchase better cameras, store images and videos more efficiently, and analyze visual data quicker than ever. Already, there are millions of surveillance cameras installed publicly and privately throughout the United States, putting vast swathes of our public space under constant watch.

We also are taking plenty of photos and videos of ourselves, ever more so with the rise of smart devices and the “internet of things” that promises to connect all our household utilities to the cloud. Without even realizing it, you might have your likeness recorded more times in a single day than your great-grandparents had in their entire lifetimes.

Even here in Eastern Iowa, public and private entities are beefing up on cameras. Many police officers now wear cameras and the footage they collect is stored digitally for months or years. Just last week at an Iowa City Council meeting, city leaders told an apartment developer that they want surveillance cameras on all angles of a new building so police could refer to the footage if needed. Last year, North Liberty officials started recruiting residents to participate in a “new type of neighborhood watch” by compiling a list of all the residents who have exterior security cameras.

There’s no doubt these technologies have many practical uses. Photos and videos are frequently used to make our lives easier or solve legitimate crimes. But before we slip into a state of perpetual automated supervision, it’s worth considering the possible consequences.

License plate readers already are in place in at least a few police departments here in Iowa, and many more across the country. Like traffic cameras, they automatically recognize the letters and digits on license plates and connect them to a vehicle’s owner, a powerful tool for police to trace suspects’ travels.

Meanwhile, major tech companies are racing to refine their facial recognition technology, and some government agencies are eager to put it to use. As one example, Amazon reportedly is in talks with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to use the company’s recognition system to identify possible offenders.


And digital storage capacity continues to make impressive progress. It is now cheap for governments and businesses to store huge volumes of material. It’s often free for consumers to save their own data on corporate servers, which could be susceptible to hacks and leaks.

Combine those three things — license plate readers, facial recognition and mass digital storage — and there becomes a very real possibility that some entity could patch together the necessary elements to track almost every action of a whole population — where they go, what they’re doing and who they associate with. Think “1984” or “Black Mirror.”

Some jurisdictions are creeping toward that reality. China is developing “social credit” system that will rely in part on camera surveillance to track everyone’s actions in order to punish those deemed untrustworthy or dishonorable. The United Kingdom also is known to use excessive surveillance to enforce even some lower-level crimes.

Closer to home in Los Angeles, the police reportedly have spent more than $20 million on a software suite built to use cameras to hunt down suspects . As the tech magazine Wired put it in a headline this year, “If you drive in Los Angeles, the cops can track your every move.”

You might call me paranoid, or tell me universal surveillance is a far cry from a few highway speed cameras. But if you hold your concern until Big Brother starts waking you every morning for the daily address, it will be too late.

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