The line between freedom, privacy, and public safety

Traffic cameras, neighborhood video surveillance, ATM cameras, store security cameras, hotel and condominium security cameras. Satellites take images from space. Google Earth zooms down to our streets.

In Honolulu, there are over 90 city still traffic cameras. There are traffic cameras along our freeways, hot spot traffic cameras, and live cameras (in front of the Duke Kahanamoku Statue). There is even video monitoring in our neighborhoods, at least 14 cameras in Chinatown and 6 in Waikiki.

In 2006, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) even paid $175,000 to install four Waikiki security cameras on Kuhio Avenue, with the support of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board. This year, there is Project PUEO (Police Using Electronic Observation), which will deter crime by installing cameras in federally-designated Weed and Seed locations in Ewa, Waipahu, and Kalihi/Palama/Chinatown, paid for by a $100,000 grant from Target’s Safe City Project.

The intention of the cameras is good: we want to avoid traffic back-ups and be able to react quickly to traffic accidents; we want to deter crime and graffiti, and catch law-breakers.

But in the name of safety and security, we are also giving up a measure of our privacy and freedom.

There is a difference between video surveillance and a Neighborhood Watch made up of volunteers in your neighborhood, or trained policemen on patrol. Video surveillance is intrusive and yet secretive, concealed. We don’t have a choice in installing the cameras; we can’t avoid the cameras; and we don’t know how the images and video will be used, or how long it will be stored, or who has access to it.

Consider this: As the only island state, surrounded by 2,500 miles of open ocean, the only practical way to leave Hawaii is by airplane. Or by cruise ship, if we abandon our cruise at another port. We are virtual prisoners unless we submit to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules about airport security – subject to video cameras, x-ray machines, pat-downs, and full-body scanners. Yes, airplane travel is a privilege. But for an island state, it is also a necessity to interstate travel.

There is no right or wrong answer to the balance of public safety and individual privacy. We must each decide for ourselves what compromises we are willing to make. I just want to start a conversation.

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Does it make a difference if it is government surveillance of public areas or private surveillance of private property? Does having our everyday lives recorded on surveillance cameras matter, if it doesn’t affect us? Does it matter only to criminals and victims of a crime, or is society affected when government expands the scope of its surveillance?

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3 Comments on “The line between freedom, privacy, and public safety”

  1. August 2011 Update: On August 25, KITV News reported that the Honolulu Police Department wants to use existing city traffic cameras and add more surveillance video cameras in Waikiki during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in November. Once again, we must give up a little more of our privacy and freedom, walking down the street or sitting in traffic, in exchange for a little more “safety.”

  2. theoldersoul Says:

    This entire blog is completely incorrect. Let me just tell you that I had my moped stolen and I called the HPD to see if I could use their cameras to find out where the person who took my moped ran off to. They don’t record, so your whining is useless because no one is watching you…at least the city isn’t. [last sentence removed by moderator]

    • I was ambivalent about approving this comment, because I think the tone is rude. But thank you for bringing up a good point: are security cameras a big deal only if they are recording us? And you remind us that we shouldn’t feel safer just because we see a security camera.

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