Just as Americans finish celebrating the 225th anniversary of the nation’s birth by belting out the "Star Spangled Banner" and singing praise to the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, reminders of Americans’ diminishing freedoms are everywhere.
In New York City’s Washington Square Park, cameras hidden behind trees and perched atop poles monitor the movements of skateboarders and sun-seekers. In Texas, roadside cameras catch the license plates of anyone crossing state lines and report back to government officials. And in Tampa, Fla., officials keep a close eye — some say too close an eye — on revelers partying it up in the popular Ybor City nightclub district.
It’s all too much for some.
"What’s happening in Tampa is troubling," says civil liberties advocate Norman Siegel, the former director of the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It indicates that the technology is outpacing the civil rights and civil liberties along with the right of anonymity and privacy."
And it’s not just cameras that are causing an uproar.
State and local officials, as well as countless other agencies, can easily monitor people’s movements, lifestyle, personal habits and shopping trends by accessing credit card statements and tracking cell phone records, toll booth payments and e-mail.
But Tampa’s effort to keep tabs on criminals and an eye out for suspicious activity is entering previously uncharted territory. The city has installed a handful of state-of-the-art security cameras that scan crowds of people and in seconds — based on facial characteristics — can tell whether someone is wanted by the law by comparing the data with mug shots on file.
In a statement released last Friday, Det. D.W. Bill Todd Jr. of the Tampa Police Department refuted the notion that the cameras are an invasion of privacy, saying, "Face-recognition technology is a powerful tool to assist in maximizing public safety."
Besides, he added, on an Ybor City street of restaurants, nightclubs and stores crowded with 20,000 people, "your expectation of privacy is somewhat diminished anyway."
The face-printing system is not uncommon — it has been used by casinos, federal government offices and at Super Bowl XXXV — but it is fueling an incendiary debate over the line between privacy and public safety.
Already, a national law enforcement organization is calling on the Tampa Police Department to take down the cameras, calling the system an unconstitutional, Big Brother-like invasion of privacy.
Kevin H. Watson, a spokesman for The Law Enforcement Alliance of America, says, "We’re calling for the cameras to be removed simply because there is the potential violation of the Fourth Amendment and the rights of privacy," he says. "The cameras also create a sense of distrust between the community and the law enforcement officers that are there to protect the people, especially when they are perceived as being a part of this Big-Brother scheme."
While Watson agrees that the system is useful in airports — where such high-tech X-ray machines as BodySearch can peer behind a person’s clothing — he says the technology isn’t for Main Street.
"There are certain venues that this technology is very useful in," he says. "Folks who walk into an airport terminal are voluntarily accepting extra security. It is part of the agreement. But to put it up on Main Street, we just don’t agree with that."
Siegel agrees. "If you are not engaged in criminal activity, no American should be the subject of a database archive from the federal, state or local government," he says. "But with this new technology, it’s a daily occurrence."
Others disagree that the high-tech surveillance violates constitutional rights. "As long as you’re taking pictures, there's really not such an intrusiveness that's going to violate the Constitution," says Stephen Crawford, a Florida-based attorney.
Despite the protests, other communities are moving ahead with plans similar to Tampa’s. Colorado recently announced plans to install a system that will capture drivers' facial characteristics to help prevent people from getting multiple driver's licenses under false names.
Civil libertarians are getting more and more nervous with each such announcement.
"More and more our government is developing the capacity to find out where we are, who we are with, and where we are going," says Siegel. "This should trouble all Americans."
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