Home / Information Is Power and Power Will Be Abused: Video Surveillance and the 4th Amendment

Information Is Power and Power Will Be Abused: Video Surveillance and the 4th Amendment

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A couple of weeks ago they put in a stoplight where our street meets the new highway that goes by our neighborhood. No one asked our neighborhood association. No one felt the need to poll the population. It certainly wasn't put to a vote or even brought up at a planning association meeting. Just as a matter of course that new stoplight included a set of video cameras covering all approaches to the intersection.

Now when my neighbors go to work in the morning and come home at night, some faceless bureaucrat in a gray suit has access to a video record of their comings and goings. Admittedly that information isn't a lot of use, unless you want to do something like send marshals out to search their house while they're gone, or make sure they're home when you serve a warrant. For that matter, a corrupt peon working for some video monitoring contractor could use that video to figure out when to send his cousin the burglar to stop by and pick up your new home theater system when you're not home. Or if they're so inclined they can see if you've got your mistress in your passenger seat instead of your wife.

The arrival of big brother's little electronic eyes in our exurban community is troubling, but discomfited though we may be by the possibilities, our woes are just the tip of the surveillance iceberg, which is on display in all its scary grandeur in Chicago.

Under the impressive name Operation Virtual Shield, a new software system commissioned for the Chicago police department and based on technology from IBM will allow them to tie together all of the public and private video cameras in the city, plus hundreds of new cameras which they are installing and run the data through a processing program which will identify potential crimes and suspicious activity and alert a human observer. This is very much like the data mining of phone calls which has drawn criticism for the NSA, but instead of sorting through the words of a conversation the computer will sort through people's actions. Combined with technology like face recognition software this will allow the police to keep track of individuals and their actions extremely effectively and as the network expands they will be able to track suspects and know their every action, or identify potential suspects based on their actions and pursue them electronically.

Tony Ruiz of the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications explained that "Mayor Richard M. Daley has had, for many years, a grand plan to incorporate cameras from public entities and private sector businesses into a single unified system allowing first responders access to real time visual data."

This sounds great when it's all about preventing crime, but what happens when the people running the program decide to broaden the definition of crime or misapply the system for political or personal purposes? Remember, this system is in the hands of a city run by the Daley political machine and they're not exactly known for their political scruples. A system like this could be used to dig up dirt on political opponents or to intrude on the privacy of ordinary citizens for any of a number of reasons, some of which may sound legitimate, but all of which involve a fundamental violation of privacy rights under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.

Everyone's complaining about President Bush's overreaching warrantless surveillance under the PATRIOT Act and the FISA program, but those surveillance programs have been used to monitor the actions of a tiny number of people under very special and limited circumstances. Under the administration of the oldest and most powerful Democratic party machine in the country, the Chicago police are setting up a surveillance network which will monitor the actions of virtually every citizen in the city without the slightest hint of a warrant or anything resembling probable cause. They're just going to watch everyone all the time because they have the technology and they can do it.

Somewhere in all of this the Bill of Rights seems to have been forgotten. The privacy rights promised in the 4th Amendment have been qualified out of existence. The streets are public space and private businesses own the rights to their video and choose to cooperate with the program voluntarily. If the police wanted to set up video and audio surveillance on someone they'd need to get a warrant, but if the cameras are already there then all protections are out the window.

Years ago when I lived in the Soviet Union I learned to accept the fact that I had no real privacy, that there could be people watching me and listening to me even in the most apparently private and personal moments. It's a disturbing thought, but the truth is that you get used to it and learn to accept it. You operate on the assumption that your life is so mundane that it will likely put the watchers to sleep, plus you really don't have anything to hide. In that situation it was also very clear what you did and did not do and say. The KGB's interests were very limited and very specific.

The problem is that today the dividing line between normal activity and crime has become blurry. We've moved into an era of 'super crimes' with their names written in capital letters like the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, where even the erroneous impression of behavior associated with those high-concern crimes can land you in a lot of hot water. The pressure on law enforcement is intense and the result can be overreaction, like the recent case of the MIT student arrested at gunpoint at Logan Airport for wearing a peculiar homemade t-shirt.

More surveillance, even when computer assisted, means more opportunities to make a mistake or overreact or take something the wrong way. The car circling a building too many times, or the guy standing for too long on the wrong corner, or a bulgy jacket at a crowded event, or any of a hundred other things that raise a red flag and which people do for innocent reasons on a daily basis could lead to disaster. And that's just the mistakes. The potential for intentional abuse, or excessive enforcement or a self-righteous crackdown on trivial crimes is even more troubling. Even the possibility of our courts being clogged up with petty drug offenders and every prostitute and John on the streets is disturbing.

Other cities around the nation are following Chicago's lead including Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore, and New York. With the recent two year rise in crime and the ongoing concern about terrorism and keeping track of the illegal immigrant population, an attempt to take this sort of program national is inevitable. The FBI is already working to centralize crime data from every jurisdiction in the nation in a single federal database. Centralized surveillance has already been implemented in England where the movement of every car is watched at all times and where integration of private video into the system is already under way. It's only a matter of time before some congressman who wants to score points as being hard on crime proposes nationwide monitoring of video surveillance using the new system being pioneered in Chicago. They'll argue it's for the safety of the people in a time of peril and heads will nod and money will get appropriated and we'll all be under he watchful eye of big brother.

Chicago is a city run by the Democratic Party and their leaders and their loyal organizations like the ACLU have been strangely silent on this issue in much the same way that the Democrats in Congress have rolled over or enthusiastically supported every infringement of our rights in the name of security from the FISA Act to the PATRIOT Act to the recently passed and cynically misnamed Protect America Act which takes away email and telecommunications privacy rights.

They've chipped away at the 4th Amendment on the local and national level until now there's almost nothing left. No more search warrants, no more presumption of innocence, no more probable cause, no more habeas corpus. The needs of almighty security come first and the rights of the citizen are forgotten.

Information is power. This new technology and the perception that we are at risk has created a huge opportunity for those who crave power to grab more than their share. Ask yourself this. Is there anyone in government who you really want to trust with all of this information and this kind of power over your life?

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Irene Wagner

    Way-cool surveillance technology’s coming down the pike, you ain’t seen nothing yet Dave Nalle…

    This all reminds me of the development of the bomb. The mathematical challenge of developing the atom bomb engaged some of the most brilliant minds on the planet at the time. The REAL thinking started after the finished product was delivered, and ramifications were considered.

  • gonzo marx

    well now..i agree heartily with over 75% of the Article and state most of the same reservations…

    but this line…“Everyone’s complaining about President Bush’s overreaching warrantless surveillance under the PATRIOT Act and the FISA program, but those surveillance programs have been used to monitor the actions of a tiny number of people under very special and limited circumstances.”

    is jusgt so much bullshit in many ways..the “tiny number” part especially…seems the author has not looked into the public info about the data mining, or the FBI’s own admitted mistakes looking at purely domestic calls (that they admit to)

    this is NOT any kind of partisan issue here, BOTH sides are culpable on each and every one of the infringements to our Rights…

    to try and spin it as if one side was worse than the other is bullshit, imo

    fuck the partisanship on this one, all Citizens should be united against it, do NOT let this one fall into the hands of the spin doctors…whether they do it intentionally or not

    nuff said…


  • moonraven

    I cahn explain why they did not ask anybody in your neighborhood about installing the stolight: It’s because they discriminate against the underclass referred to as Trailer Trash.

    Human Right Abuses in Texas!

  • Gonzo, last I checked about 10,000 people at most had been impacted by Bush’s wiretap activities, and about 200 by his use of powers granted by PATRIOT and FISA. That’s in comparison to 3 million people living in Chicago. You really want to say ‘tiny’ isn’t the right word to use for that comparison?

    There’s nothing partisan in this article. Show me where I excused Bush’s actions. My point was just that what’s going on in Chicago is worse by several orders of magnitude and no one is even raising an eyebrow. And I think it is a valid point that the difference is that one abuse is coming from beloved democrat urban tyrants and the other from our bumbling Republican scapegoat in chief.

    And BTW, MR it’s a violation of our neighborhood covenant to put a trailer or mobile home on your land. You’d be better off to go back to accusing me of being an elitist in a gated community.


  • Martin Lav

    Good article Davey me boy!
    Why’d you have to ruin it with your reference to your beloved President’s surveillance program comment? I mean, by your own statement of the facts that BushCo. has used it on 10,000 people versus 0 by the Democrats in Chicago, I guess they must have also installed the “mindspeak” recorders there.

    Luckily, since it appears you never leave the duckblind, you won’t be recorded too soon at the corner street light.

  • gonzo marx

    “Gonzo, last I checked about 10,000 people at most had been impacted by Bush’s wiretap activities, and about 200 by his use of powers granted by PATRIOT and FISA. That’s in comparison to 3 million people living in Chicago. You really want to say ‘tiny’ isn’t the right word to use for that comparison?”

    you missed my point…

    we have NO FUCKING CLUE as to how many folks are “impacted” by the data mining , do we?

    and we only have the Administration’s say so about the rest of those numbers

    now, i agree that the Chicago issue you raise is a very valid concern

    i just refuse to forget/be distracted from the Administrations blatant high crimes and misdemeanors by something in Chicago that is heinous but yet to be found unConstitutional(i agree with you that it most probably is)

    hope that clears things up

    like i said, you came really closs to an unbiased piece here, and raise concerns that every Citizen should take seriously…my ONLY fault is in the partisan spin you appear to have stuffed in there, consciously or not

    nuff said…


  • Gonzo, it’s not that I’m being partisan, it’s that you’re subscribing to the same old double standard you always get sucked into. You hold the GOP accoutnable and let the Dems slide.

    If I’d wanted to be partisan I would have spent some time talking about the Daley family’s close ties to the Clinton family and the likely guiding roll which Bill Daley (the mayor’s brother) will play in Hillary’s administration. What we see today in Chicago Hillary WILL be bringing us nationwide in 2009.


  • bullshit

    read what i typed again..i fucking DEFY you to demonstrate the truth of your unfounded allegation

    i said what Chicago intends is wrong, and those responsible should be held accountable…just like EVERY Senator/Congressman who voted for the Patriot Act should be prosecuted/impeached along with those who wrote that piece of shit up

    now…where do you see me “letting the Dems off the hook”?

    in opposition to quoting you..showing where i agree, and then demonstrating , with your own words right here in this article, where YOU have been biased/partisan….even giving you the benefit of the Doubt as to whether it’s conscious or not

    just goes to show, try and be reasonable and meet a shill and Apologist halfway, and they keep up the Big Lie and want more

    fuck that noise

    and the same to you, Vox


  • my comment appears to be stuck in Limbo

    ah well…


  • Congratulations, gonzo – you have been data mined by the Bush administration…

    Your comment will be released as soon as the FBI has finished analyzing the video tapes of that strange car journey you made to the store last night, during which, upon reaching the store, you realized you’d forgotten your wallet, so drove home to get it, whereupon you discovered that there wasn’t actually any money in it. So you drove to the bank but overshot the ATM in the dark. Realizing your mistake you circled the block, but this time were unable to park because all the available spaces had been filled by other bank customers. So you went around again and this time were able to park. However, owing to a brain fart caused by the stress of memory loss and parking problems, you were unable to remember your PIN, which necessitated several attempts before finally getting it right.

    You then compounded your dastardly suspicious behavior by happening to glance at the ATM surveillance camera as you were picking up your cash.

    The Men With No Facial Expression should be thumping on your door shortly…

  • heh…they would be in for a very rude awakening, Doc

    but i digress…

    the Comment showed up now…so it’s all good


  • OK, Bourne. 🙂

    Although flippant, my little reconstruction does illustrate how erratic but innocent behavior can appear to be something other to those who are looking out for it.

    Meantime, the real villains are finding ways of getting round the system as they always have.

  • Lumpy

    Doc D has a point about real villains and it fits with the paragrpj about the KGB in the article. Surveillance like this trains us all to think like criminals and it’s a small step from there to being criminals or perhaps revolutionaries. Vandalism might come first. I bet u could take out a lot of traffic camers with a rifle and a good scope from the right spot outside of their range.

    I bet we’ll start seeing maps of the blank areas posted on the net like wardriving maps soon.

  • I might get a bit sniped for this, but I fail to see how the government can be taken to task and torn down for planting cameras in public places. Anyone can do that… if I could find a place to hide it, or keep it from being vandalized, I could record every person who walked past my front door. If I caught some kid spray-painting a stop-sign, I could sell that tape to the cops, and I could probably get paid and get him/her arrested.

    Based on moral imperatives, we can demand two rights from the government: first, the right not to use coercive force on us if we’re not being physically destructive ourselves. Second, the right to do whatever the fuck we want in our private space.

    As this article suggests from the outset, we live in a world of information; people growing up in the current media environment need to realize: everybody in this world has access to information. If you do something dangerous or embarrassing in public, there’s a reasonable chance you’ll be caught by a camera-phone. At least the government has rules about probable cause… your neighbor will probably put the video of you crapping in your ex’s car right up there on YouTube, where it’ll stick to you for life.

    Recording my personal conversations via wiretap… that’s not a public space, and it makes me a lot more nervous. Out in the streets, the law protects me when it can, so I’m willing to coexist with it. I’m fairly confident nobody’s watching those traffic cameras anyway.

  • I’m definitely with Lumpy, though… when this behavior becomes too invasive, and we start internalizing the criminal and revolutionary stigma we’re being saddled with, then shit’s going to hit the fan. Public surveillance programs might be one of the big catalysts for the next generation’s dissent.

    I think, when that happens, normal people will suddenly show that they know how to use information better than any bureaucracy does.

  • troll

    you gotta think positive dudes and dudettes – I work hard developing personal relationships with all those cameras (and the great minds behind them) by engaging in witty chit chat at every opportunity…I’d swear that sometimes they wink

    happiness is never having to say you’re lonely

  • For a taste of the future just go to Las Vegas, which must have more surveillance cameras per square foot than anywhere else on the planet (the Pentagon possibly excepted). Very uncomfortable once you’re aware of them.

    I even clocked four cameras positioned at an innocuous-looking spot at the entrance to the Bally’s monorail station. There’s nothing there except stairs and a walkway – no ticket machines, no barriers, no exits. I can maybe understand one or two cameras, but four?

    I can only guess they had a few spare ones and couldn’t think where else to put them.

  • Silver Surfer

    For a taste of the future, correspond with me on this blog. The time it says I posted will be wrong, because I am posting this at 2.01am Wednesday October 3, and I am a day in front of you. The future is now.

    As for the cameras Dave, you ain’t the only ones .. although we haven’t got ’em at the end of my street yet.

  • gonzo marx

    “remember, remember..the fifth of November…”

    from someone who already knows how to think like a criminal…

    you go around your neighborhood and hand out BB guns to the 12-15 year olds and offer them $20 for every camera busted, each time they get replaced, rinse and repeat

    make sure it isn’t just your area, but your rivals as well, to throw off suspicion

    first wave of response, after that it gets devious

    but i digress…


  • One reason I have all my important data on CD-ROM:

    An insurance against the day when criminals start using EMP bombs to knock out all the cameras and surveillance equipment within the radius of their getaway… along with anything else electronic.

  • gonzo marx

    “keep it simple, stupid”

    no reason to get all EMP on any of this shyte

    a cut wire, broken lens, turning the camera mount the wrong way…all work much better, and cost a lot less

    you are too much the straight citizen…leave it to the outlaws and carnival folk when it comes to fucking with this kind of thing


  • Except that first you have to get to the camera undetected in order to bugger it up.

  • Silver Surfer

    Yeah, some nice snapshots of that kid down the street holding a BB gun.

    Sheriff: “Where d’ya get the gun, son”.

    12-year-old would-be camera-buster: “Dave Nalle gave it to me.”

  • LOL.

    You’re in fine form this morning/evening/300-year perpetual summer/whatever it is you have down there…

  • gonzo marx

    silly puppies..i can tell none of yas have ever been in the illegal substances distribution business

    you use minors because they can’t get busted like adults…a ski mask (or even any Halloween mask) makes the camera moot when you want to take more direct action

    not to mention that going to the pole behind the camera to get at it’s wiring is a bit smarter than the frontal assault

    on and on…you guys may be Convicts, but yas sure forgot how to be outlaws…


  • Silver Surfer

    Off to Thailand in the morning. Can’t sleep. It’s a long flight – 9 hours – so I kind of hope if I stay awake, I’ll zonk out on the plane.

    Although with my wife and youngest daughter on board and both very well schooled in the fine feminine art of speaking underwater with a loaf of bread in your mouth, there’s probably not much hope.

  • Coupla suggestions, Stan:

    1. Noise-cancelling headphones.
    2. Nyquil.
    3. Slip the purser a twenty on the way down the jetway and see if he/she can’t bump you up to first.

    Hope you have a great holiday.

  • Franco

    The open fields doctrine is a U.S. legal doctrine created judicially for purposes of evaluating claims of an unreasonable search by the government in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    The open fields doctrine was first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hester v. United States[1], which stated that “the special protection accorded by the Fourth Amendment to the people in their ‘persons, houses, papers, and effects,’ is not extended to the open fields.”[2] This opinion appears to be decided on the basis that “open fields are not a “constitutionally protected area” because they cannot be construed as “persons, houses, papers, [or] effects.”

    Wikipedia Open fields doctrine

  • Franco

    Curtilage is a legal term describing the enclosed area of land around a dwelling. It is distinct from the dwelling by virtue of lacking a roof, but distinct from the area outside the enclosure in that it is enclosed within a wall or barrier of some sort.

    It is typically treated as being legally coupled with the dwelling it surrounds despite the fact that it might commonly be considered “outdoors”.

    Wikipedia Curtilage

  • Franco

    Castle Doctrine (also known as a Castle Law or a Defense of Habitation Law) is an American legal concept derived from English Common Law, which designates one’s place of residence (or, in some states, any place legally occupied, such as one’s car or place of work) as a place in which one enjoys protection from illegal trespassing and violent attack. It then goes on to give a person the legal right to use deadly force to defend that place (his/her “castle”), and/or any other innocent persons legally inside it, from violent attack or an intrusion which may lead to violent attack. Within the legal paradigm, therefore, it functions as a type of justifiable homicide.

    Castle Doctrines are legislated by state, and not all states have a Castle Doctrine.

    Wikipedia Castle Doctrine

  • Franco

    California v. Ciraolo, 476 U.S. 206 (1986), was a case decided by the United States Supreme Court, in which it ruled that warrantless aerial observation of a man’s backyard did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

    Wikipedia California v. Ciraolo

  • Interesting… that last one strikes a cord with me. Invasion of private space, ordered by local police for a trivial crime… wouldn’t be so bad if the Burger court had decided to actually fulfill its “checks and balances” responsibility, as it did with the Nixon surveillance.

  • “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

    in their persons…is a key bit here..it ain’t just about yer House..it’s about yer own Person and your “effects”

    beat ’em at their game…wear a Masque

    nuff said…


  • Gonzo, do you know how fast you’d be surrounded and shot or tased if the surveillance network picked you up just walking around in a mask?

    As for the past history of wrongheaded decisions provided by the courts, they just go to prove that courts can be wrong. They also don’t dispel the protection that individuals have not to be under direct surveillance without cause which the court has upheld. Clearly there’s an inconsistency in how the 4th is being applied, and IMO we ought to err on the side of more rights for citizens rather than less.


  • i welcome the tasing, and the lawsuit that follows…no need to shoot me, i know the routine and will comply

    my point is that if it gets onerous…EVERYONE will wear hats/masks as a mark of privacy/civil disobedience

    could be a good ground floor business, imo

    “Clearly there’s an inconsistency in how the 4th is being applied, and IMO we ought to err on the side of more rights for citizens rather than less.”

    Quoted for Truth


  • Franco

    “i welcome the tasing, and the lawsuit that follows…no need to shoot me, i know the routine and will comply


  • Franco

    #34 — Dave Nalle

    “Clearly there’s an inconsistency in how the 4th is being applied”

    I noticed this too. This is the kind of gray area shit that can make defending yourself in court a bit of a gamble and also very expensive.

  • glad ya got a Laugh, Franco

    if ya ever met me, ya might Understand it a bit better


  • Vulpes

    Why fear the government? Shouldn’t they fear us?

  • Cindy D

    “Meantime, the real villains are finding ways of getting round the system as they always have.”

    Yeah, they usually start doing this as soon as they’re elected.

  • moonraven

    Nalle: I never accused you of being an elitist in a gated community.

    That was probably something youo or one of your clones accused ME of.

    I know you live in a trailer.