Skip to main content

Surveillance state no answer to terror

By Neil M. Richards, Special to CNN
April 23, 2013 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
A police forensics team examines a boat in a yard on April 22, 2013, on Franklin Street in Watertown, Massachusetts, where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was discovered. A police forensics team examines a boat in a yard on April 22, 2013, on Franklin Street in Watertown, Massachusetts, where bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was discovered.
HIDE CAPTION
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
Evidence photos from Boston bombings
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Neil Richards: After Boston terror attack, some call for more surveillance. That's a bad idea
  • He says cameras helped ID suspects, but it was the police system that worked
  • He says more cameras would be costly, could not stand in for humans
  • Richards: Punish those who abuse freedom, hurt others; don't take liberties away

Editor's note: Neil Richards is a professor of law at Washington University. He tweets about privacy at @neilmrichards and is the author of the recent Harvard Law Review article, "The Dangers of Surveillance."

(CNN) -- Since last week's Boston Marathon bombing, some people have called for placing more surveillance cameras in America's cities. This would be a mistake. It would be dangerous to our civil liberties, and it would be bad policy.

I felt last week's tragic events personally -- as a parent of young children, a runner and a graduate of Bedford High School in the Boston area. And it's easy to see why those extraordinary images made us all more sensitive to the everyday possibility of danger.

Neil Richards
Neil Richards

But the big picture is this: In a very unusual set of circumstances, two bad guys set off bombs. They killed three people, and injured many more. The people of Boston refused to be terrorized, and they worked with the police to catch those responsible in a few short days. Even under these extraordinary circumstances, our system worked. Bad people did bad things, but we found the suspects and we caught them.

Surveillance cameras of course played a part. They probably allowed the suspects to be identified more quickly, and they will surely provide useful evidence at the surviving suspect's criminal trial. Would more cameras have meant quicker apprehension of the suspects? There's no evidence to suggest this. And it's important to remember that there are already lots of cameras in Boston. And though some may believe that blanketing our public areas with video surveillance will make us safer, we should reject this call.

First, surveillance cameras are expensive. They are costly to install and maintain, and in a time of limited budgets, they could be mistaken for an adequate substitute for human police officers on the street. Should we trade off the cost of human police (or schools, or roads, or lower taxes) for even more robotic surveillance eyes? I don't think so.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Second, surveillance cameras don't necessarily deter serious crimes. Boston's numerous cameras didn't stop the crime at the Boston Marathon, nor did London's more extensive network of cameras deter the 2005 subway bombings. Boston's talented police commissioner, Edward Davis, put it best right after last Monday's events when he said that despite the city's extensive security preparations, little short of a "police state" could have stopped the attacks. It is to Davis' great credit that as police commissioner he didn't want a police state.

This brings me to my third point. Surveillance cameras, or other government surveillance technologies, have costs in civil liberties as well as in money. Surveillance cameras like we already have in Boston are like having a police officer with perfect memory on every street corner. It might be relatively easy to say that even more video cameras would amplify that effect while posing little threat to privacy.

But surveillance cameras are getting better, and it's now possible to pair them with facial recognition technology linked to state driver's license databases. When this technology matures, it'll give the police the power to monitor all of our movements in public linked to our real identities, not just to our anonymous faces.

Should the U.S. government have known?
Suspects called aunt to say 'I love you'
Boston pauses to remember

Such a system would conceivably give the government increased power over us, power that could be used not just to monitor, but in some cases, potentially, to blackmail, persuade or discriminate. Police on every corner might be one thing, but police who can instantly see your identity papers and constantly track you are another. We might decide we want a limited version of this system, but we need to talk about these things now, before well-meaning local governments make the decision for us.

It might be difficult to hear, but we can't be perfectly safe all the time. And part of living in a free and open society means that occasionally some people will abuse that freedom. That's why we have a criminal justice system in which the police investigate crimes. It's better to punish the people who abuse their freedom and harm others than to take everyone's liberties away and subject us all to the eye of the state.

Less privacy, less civil liberties. Being constantly observed might make us feel slightly safer, but this would be only an illusion of safety. History has shown repeatedly that broad government surveillance powers inevitably get abused, whether by the Gestapo, the Stasi, or our own FBI, which engaged in unlawful surveillance (and blackmail) of "dangerous" people like Martin Luther King Jr.

Last week's events gripped our attention because they were extraordinary. Terror attacks, plane crashes, even school shootings stick in our head out of all proportion to the danger they pose to us as individual citizens precisely because they are extraordinary.

But remember the big picture. How many people do you know who have been the victims of terrorism? On the other hand, how many people do you know who have suffered from cancer, or obesity, or gun violence? If we're interested in safety, public health and gun control are much more important issues than terrorism. They, not surveillance, should be our safety priority.

We should honor last week's victims. We should praise the Bostonians, police and private citizens, who helped find the culprits. But we should also rest secure that our system of government is working. We should reject, like Edward Davis did last week, any call to move further towards a police state.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Neil Richards.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT