Surveillance Cuts Both Ways: How New Technology Helps Keep the Cops in Check

by on May 8, 2012 · 0 comments

This seems like a logical follow-up to Berin Szoka’s previous post about technology, social activism, and government power. ReasonTV has produced this important short clip on “Cops Vs. Cameras: The Killing of Kelly Thomas & The Power of New Media.” It documents how the combined power of citizen journalism, social media, and surveillance video can ensure that our police authorities are held accountable for their actions. In this particular case, it can hopefully win some justice for Kelly Thomas, the homeless Fullerton, California man who was brutally beaten to death by police officers on the night of July 5, 2011.

There is live video from the horrific beating here, but I caution you it is not for the faint of heart. Watching the last moments of man’s life slip away from repeated blows to the head while he begs for his life and calls out for his father is, well, stomach-turning. But imagine if this video and the other citizen videos that were taking that night had not existed. As the ReasonTV clip notes, the Fullerton police department basically ignored requests for more information about the case until Kelly’s father (who was former police officer himself) took cell photos of his son’s beaten face in the hospital and released them to the public. Then the citizen videos of the beating were posted on YouTube and went viral. And then, finally, mainstream media started paying attention. And now the surveillance video from a nearby street camera has been released after citizens and activists demanded it.

While we spend a lot of time today worrying about the privacy implications of new technologies, especially surveillance technologies, episodes like these make it clear that there are also powerful benefits from these new surveillance tools. David Brin first pointed this out in his provocative 1997 book, The Transparent Society, in which he noted:

While new surveillance and data technologies pose vexing challenges, we may be wise to pause and recall what worked for us so far. Reciprocal accountability — a widely shared power to shine light, even on the mighty — is the unsung marvel of our age, empowering even eccentrics and minorities to enforce their own freedom. Shall we scrap civilization’s best tool – light — in favor of a fad of secrecy?

Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to limit the surveillance powers of our government over the citizenry. We absolutely must. But we must draw a distinction between the tools and their uses and make sure we do not go overboard with what Brin called the “fad of secrecy” such that new privacy rules limit the use and spread of these technologies.

For far too long governments have avoided accountability for their actions because of a lack of transparency. Nowhere has this been more dismaying that in matters of policing. While our law enforcement officers deserve respect for the hard jobs they have to keep the public safe, they also must account for their actions when they go too far precisely because we grant them coercive powers held by no other group in society. Luckily, new technologies can help us keep their power in check and hold them accountable. While some authorities are fighting back and trying to limit citizen efforts to record them and hold them accountable, the genie is already well out of the bottle. These surveillance tools are not going away and law enforcement authorities will now be forced to live under the gaze of an empowered citizenry. Hopefully that increases transparency and accountability in all policing activities going forward. Read Brin’s short 2011 essay “Sousveillance: A New Era for Police Accountability” for greater elaboration.

Previous post:

Next post: