We Need Surveillance Cameras on Every Corner of Every Major City

And I'm a civil libertarian.

It’s been a tough decade or so for civil libertarians. Every big moment in America since 9/11 seems to have brought fresh humiliation for those of us who believe in things like “privacy” and “due process of law.” We’ve watched as our country—supposedly liberty’s beacon—resorted to torture, warrantless wiretapping, data mining, “national security letters,” targeted assassinations of Americans abroad, and a host of other measures designed to keep the police and government from abusing their powers over this. You can’t even go through airport security without getting virtually naked anymore.

This stuff made me mad under George W. Bush. This stuff makes me mad under Barack Obama. So heaven help me as I try to ponder my response to the bombings in Boston, which is this:

We ought to have surveillance cameras on every corner of every major city in America.

The loud, angry civil libertarian in my soul wants very much to oppose the idea of a society saturated with video cameras. There is something good lost, it seems, when we know that no public movement goes unwatched or unrecorded. I’m not going to deny that.

But I keep coming back to two thoughts: Nobody gets to have an expectation of privacy when they’re in public. And cameras—while imperfect—can often bring the bad guys to justice.

Let’s start by acknowledging that surveillance cameras are already widespread: While Americans tend to think of cameras as being connected to a network (like London’s CCTV), most of the country’s 30 million surveillance cameras are in private hands, ready to divulge their recordings the next time a robber (say) sticks up a convenience store.

What are the objections to such cameras?

They don’t deter crime: This actually seems to be largely true. In 2012, the city of Chicago installed cameras throughout its rail system, on stations and in trains. The number of reported crimes actually increased by 21 percent. And reports from Europe say that London, despite its title as the “most spied-upon city in the world,” still has the crime rates it did during the 1980s. Cameras aren’t a silver bullet.

They don’t solve crimes. Less true. The ACLU’s website on the topic—published in 2009—suggests that only one crime is solved for every 1,000 cameras. If that number holds up, though, that means 30,000 crimes have been solved: That’s not a huge number, perhaps, but those crimes are significant to their victims.

What’s more, we see the efficacy of cameras in Philadelphia all the time. Think about this crime:

Or this one:And, well, don’t forget that this winter’s murder of a young doctor by her exterminator was solved using cameras located at neighborhood businesses.

Now, in Boston, investigators have suspects to pursue because of all the images recorded there. Thanks to cameras, bad guys are getting got—or, at least, they’re being pursued more closely than they otherwise would have been.

Incidentally, I imagine this is mostly how cameras will be used: Not to track people in the moment, but as retroactive witnesses to putting bad guys away. There’s value to that.

They inhibit privacy: The ACLU tells the story of one couple, thinking they were alone, having an “intimate moment” on a dark rooftop, only to discover they were seen by cops. The answer to this: Don’t have sex outdoors if you don’t want to be seen. I can’t emphasize this enough: When you go outside, you don’t have an expectation of privacy. You can be seen. And at this point, you should assume you will be. That doesn’t seem like too much of a burden: Almost all of us behave differently behind closed doors than we do in the classroom or office. Mostly, it’s just the act being civil in society.

Listen: There are limits to this. Nobody wants cameras tracking us in our homes, in our private moments. Where we have legitimate expectations of privacy—in our phone calls, or emails, or simply behind closed doors—investigators should always be required to produce a warrant before invading our lives. But in public—where nobody has any expectation of privacy—let’s put technology to work.