Privacy SOS

Someone tell Alan Dershowitz that surveillance cameras don’t do what he thinks they do

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At about 58:30 in this video of the Munk debate on the surveillance state, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz—who is arguing in favor of mass surveillance—says that the phone metadata dragnet is not unlike another kind of surveillance: CCTV monitoring.

Among the new primitive technologies, we now have silent cameras on street corners. That has had a major impact on reducing street crime. Now, those cameras capture the images of innocent people—all of us, walking along the street, and doing our own thing. It doesn’t capture what we say, but it watches us. It’s Big Brother—it’s Big Brother writ small, perhaps. And it doesn’t focus only on guilty, because criminals don’t walk around with big C’s on their heads. We have to have these cameras in order to make, send a message to criminals, that if you commit a crime, there will be a video, and you will be captured. That has a big impact.

So you don’t have to be guilty in order to surrender a little bit of your autonomy and privacy in the interest of preventing major crimes.

There’s a lot to deconstruct in Dershowitz’s argument here, but I'll focus on the glaring problem: he is completely wrong when he says that surveillance cameras have "a major impact on reducing street crime."

That claim is oft repeated by surveillance state advocates and police, but it simply isn’t true. 

Dershowitz argues that even innocent people should willingly give up our rights "in the interest of preventing major crimes." While there is some evidence to suggest cameras help deter minor crimes like vandalism, there is absolutely zero evidence to support the conclusion that cameras stop murders, rapes, or terrorism. Cameras also aren’t as useful as you might think in terms of solving crimes, after the fact.

In a way, Dershowitz’s comparison of bulk phone records spying to ubiquitous CCTV surveillance is therefore apt. After all, the metadata program never stopped a major crime, either.

While Professor Dershowitz’s argument about surveillance cameras and metadata doesn’t hold water when confronted with the available evidence, the tenor of his larger point does make sense—in a twisted, authoritarian kind of way. The argument he’s ultimately making is that, in the face of crime, we should accept routine, mass privacy violations as a matter of course. We should be afraid, and we should welcome persistent government monitoring, a 21st century version of the Panopticon.

Dershowitz shows his hand when he says that the purpose of mass surveillance is to instill fear in the monitored. We have to "send a message to criminals," he says, advocating for the use of surveillance cameras. But since the cameras spy on everyone, the message comes across to every one of us: You are being watched, so act like it. 

That's the message the NSA and the FBI send with their metadata dragnet, and it's pure authoritarianism. Let's hope the Munk debate isn't the only place Dershowitz and his ideological comrades lose on the merits.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.