Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
February 23rd, 2006


Proof of innocence

In case you haven’t heard about it yet, Houston’s police chief has proposed to install police surveillance cameras “in apartment complexes, downtown streets, shopping malls and even private homes.” Installing cameras in apartment complexes, downtown streets, and shopping malls isn’t all that new, but upon reading last week his claim that “if a homeowner requires repeated police response, it is reasonable to require camera surveillance of the property” made me hope that he was badly misquoted. But look at how he justified his proposal:

I know a lot of people are concerned about Big Brother, but my response to that is, if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?

We hear this argument constantly from various levels of government: “What have you got to hide?” Well, what have we got to show? If we’re not doing anything wrong, why should the government install cameras in people’s private homes, just for the sake of verifying that they are indeed not breaking the law?

I suppose proponents of such a measure would draw a parallel to mandatory breathalyzer tests, but Mr. Hurtt’s proposal involves so much more than the presumption that a random partygoer is drunk. For one thing, based on the description given in the news reports, these cameras could be installed inside a person’s home, monitored at all times, and the homeowner might not have any control over it. Another issue to consider: how do you know that police monitoring the screens don’t have any questionable intentions with their ability to legally snoop on everybody?

Just ten years ago, it would’ve been ridiculously easy to dismiss such a plan by citing the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits unwarranted searches and seizures by the government. After all, the police camera is a function of the police department. It’s subject to the same regulations as any police officer, because through it a police officer can easily see what’s going on. But these days, anything goes when you can justify your idea as a protection against terrorism, thieves, or simple solitude. “Privacy is a crime” must be in the back of someone’s head, a nod to the oft-cited government of Oceania.

Libertarians always ask the question, “What next?” because they fear the possibility of the presently-benign government giving way to a twisted regime, the Police State, that actually makes use of the power that we blindly give it. In this case, the danger might not be so much a malicious government of the future, but rather incompetent and naïve officials of the present, such as this person from the Houston Apartment Association:

I think a lot of people would appreciate the thought of extra eyes looking out for them.

If the “extra eyes” were, say, busy keeping my identity from being stolen, rather than attempting to watch my every move like that of a convicted felon, I might then perhaps appreciate it. This plan, however, is actually in reaction to a shortage of officers in Houston, intended to replace real cop presence. Who then are they planning to hire as monitors, to watch us in our bedrooms? City officials with a taste for questionable content?

If you have a little cash to spare, you might want to consider pledging to the Hurtt Prize, which will be awarded to the gumshoe who catches the police chief breaking the law on tape. Who knows: with any luck, we might actually make public officials accountable to the public.

Thanks to Bruce Schneier for reminding me about Houston’s screwed-up city government.


  1. Well, my "crisp answer" to the "If you haven't done anything wrong..." question is:

    It's not my wrongful actions that I'm worried about, but rather your (their) wrongful actions that I want to protect myself from.