Warehouse B
Always Watched
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Can Public Surveillance Be A Good Thing?

By James Donahue

People in the UK have gotten used to cameras mounted on their city streets, and knowing that someone is watching and capturing their every public move on video footage. When asked about it, those who appear on public television at least, raise few objections. They believe the streets are safer because of them.

And that may be true. Crimes like car theft, burglary and muggings are not only observed, but police in London, for example, can be instantly dispatched to the scene. Even if the person who commits the crime dashes off, his or her image is captured on film.

Americans, who remain vocally opposed to any intrusion of their so-called "constitutional rights," have not been receptive to the idea, although more and more surveillance systems are being installed, mostly around factories, high risk facilities like chemical plants, and in high crime areas. People are mounting them over the fronts of their businesses and inside their homes and offices.

This growing popularity of surveillance systems has been quietly occurring in the United States for some time. While many people don't realize this, it is getting so that nearly every move we make outside of our homes is captured on film. There is a record of our movements down city streets and inside the stores and offices we visit. It is going on quietly and usually the images remain quite private and unused . . . unless a crime is committed. Then property owners and police have video footage to examine for possible images of the crime in progress.

We all know about these crime videos. Entire television shows have sprung up where we can watch the best of them, mostly shot from the front of police cars, but often showing robberies in progress in liquor stores and other places of business.

So is this loss of privacy in our overpopulated world a bad thing? Those who argue yes forget that Americans have not yet learned to live peacefully with their neighbors. Our years of fast growth, with cultures arriving from all over the globe to attempt to blend with one another, has often led to violent clashes caused by cultural, racial and religious bigotry. So, yes, we need controls on ourselves, and surveillance cameras are probably a very good way to help accomplish this.

Older cultures of the world, and especially the Japanese, who have been forced by their own boundaries to live, work and play in close proximity to one another, have developed a way to live in peace and harmony. In Japan the key appears to involve one basic rule . . . everybody minds their own business. There appears to be an unwritten law against gossip. This writer suggests that the law is unwritten, but for all we know, it may be a written law. However they have accomplished it, talking about other people's private affairs, or even making critical remarks about others, is strictly taboo.

Because of America's war on terrorism, many people of Middle Eastern descent have been the subject of suspicion the moment they step foot in the United States. One such person, a Rutgers professor Hasan Elahi, a native of Bangladesh and now an American citizen, has been using a personal surveillance system to protect himself from the FBI.

It seems that Elahi, a frequent world traveler, was mistakenly listed on the government's terrorist watch list in 2002, during the height of the terrorism paranoia, and he said he found it very hard to get his name off this list. To fix this, he created his own Internet website that tracks and photographs his every move. He uses the recording device of a small pocket cell phone to constantly photograph his every move. The images are instantly sent, via the wireless phone to his home computer system, and they appear on that web site.

Elahi also carries a GPS device in his pocket that reports his real-time physical location on a map as well, so the FBI and all other interested agencies can observe his every move. He says the system has been doing a good job of keeping him out of trouble and allowing him to go on with his life.

Interestingly enough, Elahi's server logs show hits from the Pentagon, the Secretary of Defense and even the Executive Office of the President.