With the exponential growth of an incredibly intrusive surveillance state threatening to virtually destroy the Bill of Rights and the privacy of millions of Americans, the possibility of repealing or severely scaling back a federalized Big Brother in the United States seems remote. The technology at the state's fingertips, combined with political representation which loves having their eyes on our emails, phone calls, and wallets, make the struggle for civil liberties even more daunting.
Like it or not, the technology that enabled the U.S. to erect a vast network of surveillance and spy agencies is here to stay. But rather than look to Congress or political reform to limit the excesses of the surveillance state, creating millions of Little Brothers with their eyes carefully watching those in power may be the most effective way of keeping government in check and safeguarding constitutional liberties.
In a recent article at Reason, Ronald Bailey discusses one of the many benefits of Manhattan Federal District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin's recent challenge to New York City's stop-and-frisk program. In addition to finding the policy unconstitutional, Scheindlin also wants police officers in the areas of New York with the highest stop-and-frisk incidents to wear video cameras for one year.
As Bailey argues, "Earlier this year, a 12-month study by Cambridge University researchers revealed that when the city of Rialto, California, required its cops to wear cameras, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88% and the use of force by officers dropped by almost 60%. Watched cops are polite cops."
Watch how the cameras affected the way Rialto's officers acted below:
If the Cambridge University study is any indication of success, then Scheindlin's ruling that NYPD officers must wear cameras on their badges is both a model for the entire country, a victory for civil liberties, and proof that the same tools used to shred our privacy rights can be used against the state to restrain it.
As the power and weaponry of law enforcement ages continues to swell, this innovation could not come at a better time. Starting with the war on drugs and continuing with the war on terror, state police have become highly militarized, beholden to federal money, increasingly unaccountable, and tend to treat the Bill of Rights as an inconvenience to ignore rather than principles they swore an oath to protect. "Civil forfeiture" laws allow police to literally steal private property without even being charged of a crime, let alone due process.
Because of these developments, there are now over 50,000 SWAT raids annually in America — the types of raids that were designed for and then perfected in the streets of Fallujah and Kandahar. Without radical restraints on the state's power to initiate and dispense lethal force through its law enforcement agencies, our rights to life, liberty, and property are and will continue to be severely threatened.
Yet despite the fact that U.S. law enforcement eerily resembles East Germany's Stasi with even greater technological tools to inflict terror, according to the Cambridge University study, all it takes is a tiny little camera on a cop's chest to drastically minimize abuse, arbitrary coercion, and makes cops act like the peace officers they are intended to be.
Many states have laws against the private filming of police officers using cell-phone and other personal cameras. Yet as Bailey also points out, "Video recordings help shield officers from false accusations of abuse as well as protecting the public against police misconduct."
How do we apply the technology that keeps both private citizens and law enforcement officers safer and more accountable to the surveillance state, the NSA, and other Orwellian federal agencies? C-SPAN, with video recordings of Congressional debates and speeches, could be a model. Former Congressman Ron Paul used to joke that cameras belonged in the Oval Office, not in the face of the American people. Now that's some transparency we can all get behind!
Realistically, like most positive social change, keeping an eye on Big Brother will come from the bottom up. There are apps that allow you to boycott corporate monsters, film police without them knowing it, and communicate more privately. Surely these same tools could be used to not only shine the light on government corruption but help circumvent the surveillance state.
The most important feature behind these concepts is the idea that individuals, society, our institutions, and innovations like technology can and should exist as a bulwark against criminality, whether the thieves wear black masks, congressional suits, or shiny badges. The Constitution is a document intended to restrict state power, not champion it. While most of that document's wisdom is a dead letter these days, its spirit can be found in the power of technology and private individuals to keep a watchful eye on state power.