How many cameras have filmed you today?
Rosen (Law/George Washington Univ.) is not the kind of guy who would take off his shoes, open his belt, and graciously submit for every kind of unwarranted search at an airport security station. But, then, he’s legal-affairs editor for The New Republic; as he notes in this study of the balancing of fear and security, most Americans after 9/11 didn’t mind such intrusions into their privacy at all. This is an unsurprising point, but Rosen takes an unexpected turn early on by focusing on the phenomenon of closed-circuit cameras in Britain. Since a pair of especially horrendous IRA bombings in the mid-1990s, security cameras have proliferated across the UK, the numbers—now well over two million—swelling after each new heavily publicized crime report. The fact that each Briton is photographed, on average, 300 times a day by 30 different cameras has aroused surprisingly little outrage; most of the public sees the system as “a friendly eye in the sky, not Big Brother, but a kindly and watchful uncle or aunt.” Rosen later moves into more familiar American territory, mostly discussing the slow, steady erosion of liberties under Attorney General John Ashcroft and the public’s slowly growing queasiness about it. (Rosen wrote about “The Destruction of Privacy in America” in The Unwanted Gaze in 2000.) Not much of this material will come as a shock to even a cursory newsreader, but it always bears repeating. Aside from some smart warnings about how what the public is afraid of (terrorists) is usually not what surveillance technology is best at stopping (car theft), Rosen is also able to use the British example as a sharp reminder of what can happen when a populace gives in to fear and embraces technology as an all-curing panacea.
An extremely readable and handy primer on the pros and cons of surveillance: less a civil liberties screed than a call for simple common sense.