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Jack Zaleski, Published August 18 2012

Zaleski: Hey, Mort, ya gotta see this babe …

It looks like Fargo police will implement a “pilot program” of placing surveillance cameras in a discreet section of downtown. Bad idea.

The police are proceeding, they say, because merchants in the designated area want the cameras as deterrents to crime. It’s still a bad idea.

A Wall Street Journal review of a book about privacy got to the heart of why government cameras in public places represent a stealthy erosion of privacy. “Privacy” author Garret Keizer wrote, “If privacy is the right to be left alone, then technology is our ever-expanding ability to let nothing alone.” The review cited the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee – “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, house, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Their persons.

Technology has changed all that.

Also emphasized in the book and review was the difference between the use of intrusive “security” cameras by private businesses and government. If, for example, a patron doesn’t like being spied on while shopping he/she can shop elsewhere. But when government, i.e. the police, monitor people in public places there is no way to get away from peering electronic eyes, recorders, whatever.

If there is a crime concern in the neighborhood, police should not resort to an Orwell “1984” solution. Put a cop on the beat. Direct the considerable sum to be spent on cameras and associated equipment to an honest-to-God policeman’s salary. Have the officer there when the businesses say the problem is greatest. But don’t take the lazy route: technology that violates the “person” of anyone who might be in the area.

I can see it now: Some underpaid, undertrained police employee sitting in a darkened room monitoring the action on camera. “Hey Mort, ya gotta see this babe. Whoa, look at those. ... Hey, zoom in.”

Or this: “Dang, I think I know those two. Yeah, them two, what’s holding hands an’ doin’ the ol’ lip-lock tango. Wait, that ain’t his wife, is it …? Hey, Mort, ya gotta love this stuff …”

“Protect and serve” does not mean protect, serve and snoop. “Protect and serve” does not extend to using technology to monitor every citizen simply because it can be done.

Some technologies guarantee lazy police work. The bells and whistles of technology do not make for good cops or good police work. Human eyes on the ground that know the beat and focus on incidents of crime take more effort and street smarts than a camera that in effect criminalizes everyone in its lens.

Our police officers are good. They can do better than this.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.