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Editorial: On the watch

Big brother is watching ... and maybe that’s not always a bad thing.

The specter of government intrusion looms large over any kind of surveillance here in the United States, feeding those who see conspiracies at every turn as well as those who have legitimate concerns over civil liberties.

And as technology and society undergo changes, the lines that once seemed to separate private and public seem to blur more often.

The bombings at the Boston Marathon and the subsequent manhunt for the suspects are the latest events added to the ongoing debate.

It’s hard to argue that the all of the electronic eyes in public spaces — be they surveillance cameras, private security cameras or smartphones and similar devices — weren’t beneficial in the identification of the two suspects. Without those photographs, and the ability to scan them at a faster speed, who knows how long it would have taken the FBI and others involved in identifying possible those suspects? Instead, it took just three days for the FBI to pull those images from the footage, then release it for the public to help identify the suspected terrorists and provide information that would lead to finding them.

And that kind of police work in solving crimes will only get quicker as the computer software for things like face and object recognition improves and its use is more widespread.

Of course, determining just where the line runs on this path is fraught with dangers.

If part of your thinking is that surveillance cameras are a preventative measure, that’s the wrong view to take. At least one study on the matter, done at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, found that surveillance systems in urban settings are not effective in preventing crime. We don’t think you need studies to prove this since there are plenty of examples where human behavior doesn’t seem to be altered, despite being aware that there are more cameras in and out of buildings or in someone’s phone.

At its most benign, people are caught doing stupid things and at the worst a crime.

This ignorance that what people do in public may be caught on camera is either a conscious decision on their part or or a belief that they are somehow invisible. Either way, there’s a failure to see how it might run counter to privacy concerns.

“Look, we don’t want an occupied state. We want to be able to walk the good balance between freedom and security,” Los Angeles police Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who heads the department’s counter-terrorism and special operations bureau, said in a recent Associated Press story.

Is it possible for this technology to be abused? Yes.

But is it also possible to establish laws about surveillance camera use that will reduce the chances of violating an individual’s civil liberties? Again, yes.

Just as surveillance cameras used by law enforcement are monitoring public movement, it remains essential that Americans keep a watch on surveillance practices to see that they aren’t misused.

As a tool in the identification and arrest of possible suspects, surveillance cameras are proving their value time and time again.

A recent CNN/Time/ORC poll showed that 81 percent of Americans were in favor of expanded camera surveillance, which indicates that many Americans don’t have an issue with it, provided it gives them a greater sense of security.

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