Privacy SOS

Let’s show the world how it’s done

Boston Police commissioner Ed Davis has called for more police surveillance cameras and drones to better keep an eye on the city. Knee jerk calls for more surveillance in the wake of a tragedy like the events of April 15 are understandable; people want to do something, we want to act quickly to protect ourselves. 

But buying more cameras isn’t the answer. Massachusetts law enforcement officials have themselves acknowledged that there was plenty of footage of the scene around the attacks. Indeed, the colonel of the State Police told the press that more information may have simply confused things:

"The sheer volume of stuff made it difficult to sort through," said Alben, 53, the State Police colonel appointed last summer to oversee the state’s 2,300 troopers. But, he said, "we were very confident that there were enough cameras down there that we were going to capture something" that would lead to bombers."

That’s right. There were enough cameras down there; investigators found all the evidence they needed. So why the rush to put more cameras on the streets, even though there is zero evidence to suggest that cameras do anything to stop deranged plots to wantonly murder civilians?

If we consent to being constantly tracked by the government, everywhere we go, from the moment we leave our homes in the morning until the moment we return at night, no matter that we aren’t suspected to have done anything wrong, we are sending a very dangerous sign to those who would harm us. What we need now is not cowardice, but true strength. 

We are strong, and so we must respond by thinking carefully and logically about what mistakes may have been made, and how we might fix them. But we can’t react by trying to fix problems that don’t exist, and in the process give up our liberty.

We need to make sure that the public safety decisions we make in light of (thankfully rare) atrocities do not compromise our most important values as a society. A recent poll showed that 48% of Americans are worried that the government will go too far in response to this attack, while only 41% think it won’t go far enough. 

But the question isn’t how far we go, it’s in which direction — and how. We need to be smart, not ham-fisted. More surveillance, more tracking, more databases, or more racial profiling are not going to keep us safer, but they will make our society less democratic and inch us closer to a surveillance state.

And there are ways in which doing so could even undermine public safety. Making the 'intelligence haystack' bigger by expanding the surveillance dragnet is likely to create more confusion for investigators. We need to fix the signal to noise ratio, and there's no evidence that more tracking would do anything but make the problem worse.

Of course, there’s no question that technologies like cameras and drones can help the police keep an eye on high profile events, where thousands of people gather in public spaces. But if we choose to embrace these tools we need to ensure that our laws keep up to date with technological advancements, to ensure that our system of checks and balances remains intact, and that the police don’t start spying on people who they don’t suspect to be involved in any criminal activity.

Technologies change, but our most fundamental principles of justice mustn’t.

If Commissioner Davis wants to fly drones above the Marathon next year, or above our houses and neighborhoods next month, we should first pass the Drone Privacy Act in Massachusetts to ensure that these powerful spybots aren’t misused. 

We mustn’t react with fear and haste, and thereby throw out our most cherished values. We can and must act to enhance public safety while at the same time protecting core liberties. That requires careful deliberation, public debate, and policymaking that engages the public. 

Let’s show the world how it’s done in Boston, our city on a hill. Let’s respond by doubling down on our freedom and privacy, while at the same time giving police the tools they need to solve crimes and respond to tragedies.

Checks and balances make us stronger. Take action now if you agree.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.