- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

Good intentions often lead to terrible policy and the announcement by the National Park Service that it will erect a multi-million-dollar video surveillance grid encompassing the Mall and all its monuments by October of this year is no exception to this rule. Taking steps to pre-empt terrorism is, in principle, a good thing. But this business of putting us all under the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother is going too far.
The Park Service is going to set up a network of closed-circuit cameras tied in to computer databases and recording equipment perhaps even fed into the latest face-recognition software that can identify and track individual people so pervasive that anyone who steps out-of-doors downtown can assume that he is being watched and recorded. This is not the hallmark of a free and open society. Regardless of the motive, or the supposed benefit, such an invasion of public spaces by the watchful eye of officialdom must be condemned.
Maryland Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella was among those who expressed outrage and alarm at the announcement Thursday by the Park Service. "How long are they going to capture on these cameras every face of every person who is there," she asked in reference to the face-recognition technology that is likely to be an integral component of the system. "How long do they hold this material? Who will have access to it?" Indeed, the technology not only exists but is actually in place to allow government agencies and authorities at all levels not only to collect video images and records of individual Americans, but to compile and share these records with each other. It's one thing to keep track of specific people who have committed, or who are reasonably suspected of being involved with, criminal activity of some kind. But this system is being established by the Park Service to watch and keep tabs on everyone who comes to the Mall tourists, moms with their kids, veterans, protesters. All of us.
No good can come of this. It is excessive, unjustified, creepy and will almost certainly be abused.
A far better option would be to employ police and other law-enforcement personnel appropriately, to physically "make the rounds" and watch over our public areas, on the lookout for potential trouble. It is an abrogation of the law-enforcement function to turn this vital role over to cameras and computers that do not have the ability to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. Surely the police have the ability to handle this job without our having to surrender ourselves to literally ubiquitous monitoring and recording by impersonal machinery.
The fight against terror is both necessary and important but our basic freedoms and our way of life should not have to be sacrificed to fight the battle.


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