- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 10, 2008

Big brother is coming to the District of Columbia. As The Washington Times reported yesterday, city officials are handing D.C. Police unprecedented access to a city network of 5,200 traffic, school and public-housing cameras — now to be used for anticrime and antiterrorism purposes in the D.C. Police closed-circuit surveillance system. Presently, D.C. Police operate only 92 crime cameras in addition to several homeland security cameras. This is quite a staggering “repurposing.” To stick with the warranted “Big Brother” theme: It makes Winston Smiths of us all. These 61 square miles of city each bear an average of 85.2 cameras among the new prying eyes. Now that’s a crime.

We consulted with the Libertarian National Committee’s Andrew Davis to get a read on the reaction. As he told us: “In America, people should not be forced to assume that they’re being monitored by law enforcement throughout the day.” Perhaps being monitored is an inevitable fact of life in the nation’s capital. Perhaps not. We believe that crime monitoring can be done without government proceeding so far beyond the original parameters that we now near the point where no simple action engaged in on the street goes unrecorded. The old saying is, “Give ‘em an inch, and they’ll take a mile.” The District is now taking 61. Soon we’ll be mirroring London’s infamous “Ring of Steel,” Mr. Davis thunders, comparing the District (not unjustifiably) to that “state system of government.”

Mayor Adrian Fenty defends the effort as a needed enhancement to surveillance and public-safety capabilities. That it also threatens to make the District perhaps the most thoroughly surveilled, spied-upon city in the nation save perhaps Chicago does not seem to warrant much attention in his view. Can we not combat crime without turning city residents into lieges of the state? There is also the question of whether the network will even do much to combat crime. The crime-camera record is mixed. Any decline in crime in areas surrounding cameras can simply shift into the shadows, where criminal deeds evade police watch. Do we then install cameras inside homes and offices and automobiles?

Of course, toward the end of crime-fighting, we continue to advocate something Mr. Fenty considers anathema. That is an end to the District’s repressive and unconstitutional gun ban, now under consideration by the Supreme Court.

Naturally, the District expects that the federal government will subsidize part of the needed $1.7 million for repurposed surveillance. How “nanny-state.”

Recall that this system was originally supposed to be “passive.” That was the term of art when the first surveillance network was granted through “emergency” legislation. Now, two years later, the emergency is permanent. The system is now “active,” creeping ever further into the everyday lives of citizens.

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