Is DC trying to become more like Great Britain?

21 January 2011

Chances are if you've been on the Net in the past couple of years you've heard about the neigh-omnipresent surveillance network Great Britain has built. It's been said that there are over four million securicams watching the street, alleys, storefronts, street corners, front stoops; to put it another way, that's about one camera for every fourteen people, though some estimates are higher than that. That's a scary number if you think about it a little. Did you know, however, that my hometown of Washington, DC is building its own panopticon network?

In hindsight it shouldn't be that surprising. From time to time I photograph some of the signs of surveillance that I run into while out and about. If you're curious here's a map of them. I don't often photograph the securicams that are monitoring the highways around here because I happen to be driving at the time, but I can't possibly be the only person who notices them. I haven't been accosted yet while doing so, as others have, but I think I've been lucky.

DC has an internal organization called the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (which seems odd because Washington, DC is not its own country) which monitors the 4500+ securicams scattered around the city around the clock. The system will be called Video Interoperability for Public Safety, and the idea is that the powers that be would spot problems as soon as they arise and maneuver police into position to take care of things. They plan on adding a few thousand more cameras to the city to get more comprehensive coverage of DC and the outlying neighborhoods. While they don't yet have access to security camera feeds from private businesses word on the street has it that they're considering making the effort at this time. At this moment HSEMA doesn't have the funding yet so this effort is technically still on the drawing board. However, if the first decade of the twenty-first century has taught us anything, it is that there is always funding for increased surveillance of any kind, nevermind the fact that there are few measures in place to prevent abuse or safeguard our dwindling civil liberties.

Widespread public surveillance is still pretty rare in the States so not many studies have been done here yet. However, in countries where video monitoring is in place the effectiveness of such measures has been a subject of much research and it's not effective at all. Violent crime rates haven't gone down, shoplifting hasn't been impacted, and brawling in the street hasn't stopped. They don't seem to help solve assassinations, either. At best, they reduce rates of automobile theft and vandalism when used in conjunction with bright area lighting. Moreover, the cost of maintaining the cameras is too high when compared to how useful they aren't. At best this seems like a social engineering measure; more likely it's an act of security theatre, and we're all on stage without having rehearsed. It's a safe bet that a couple of contracting companies are making bank and everyone can get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside after being told that we're being watched over to keep us safe, but when it comes time to put up or shut up the surveillance networks keep falling short, and we never see the benefit when such measures would help us.