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Jane Ahlin, Published June 01 2013

Ahlin: Cameras here, cameras there – cameras everywhere

As a fan of the HGTV program “Love It or List It,” I know when Hilary – the designer redoing a couple’s current home – is in big trouble, and David – the Realtor out to sell the couple a different home – is looking good. Early in the program, Hilary’s crew discovers major structural deficiencies or rot in the current home, and, suddenly, the limited budget the homeowners have given her to do the remodel must mostly go to rebuilding the home’s framework. The couple is unhappy. Then comes the “Love It or List It” tension: Will they end up staying with their safe and sound – albeit not entirely redone – original home or put it up for sale and move on?

The mundane nature of my television viewing, you’ll be relieved to know, is not the point here. Instead, there’s an analogy to be drawn to a current American attitude that is troubling. Put specifically, traditional understanding of our constitutional rights – particularly our right to privacy – has changed dramatically in recent years without any sense that the majority of us are paying attention.

What does that have to do with HGTV? Please bear with me.

Whether considering national revelations that the IRS targeted tea party groups or federal agents tapped Associated Press telephone lines and read the emails of a Fox reporter without notification or subpoena, or talking about the appropriate use of drones or even discussing our local police department increasing video surveillance unnecessarily in downtown Fargo, nobody seems to care.

Well, maybe “nobody” is too strong a word. On the national level, plenty of politicians are puffing and positioning on the IRS issue, and, of course, journalists are upset at the Justice Department’s overreach in trying to identify the sources of administration leaks. (Before all is said and done, Attorney General Erik Holder is likely to lose his job. The head of the IRS already has resigned.) And yet, the general population isn’t overly curious, much less upset, about what is going on. The operative emotion for most Americans is ambivalence. We’re blasé, un-phased, not interested. (Doesn’t seem to affect me, so why rock the boat?) As for local expansion of police surveillance in Fargo, forget it. Concern for privacy is for fanatics.

That’s a problem. Returning to the HGTV analogy, our constitutional (civil) rights in a democratic society are like the architectural structure of a home: remove a load-bearing beam or let the wood rot and the whole thing sags. Sooner or later, it’s going to fall down. And when it does, we’ll be shocked – the way the homeowners are when they discover their home has more façade than framework and the fix is costly. In a democracy, trying to restore civil liberties mindlessly given up also is a tough fix. In fact, because the nature of wielding authority is to expand it rather than limit it, restoring rights may be nearly impossible.

Video surveillance is a powerful tool. The quick identification of the Boston Marathon bombers underscored that fact. But consider these questions: Is blanketing public space with video surveillance 24/7, 365 days of the year, a reasonable tradeoff? Couldn’t the same end be achieved if increased security measures – including video surveillance – were added for high-profile events? For that matter, do we know how much of the video in Boston came from private businesses?

There is a big difference between a private business owner using video surveillance and a police force using it non-stop in public space. Private monitoring is confined to the business doing it. Police videoing public places have no such restraints. Whether intended or not, video monitoring becomes a fishing expedition affecting many people other than criminals.

Advances in technology over the past decade have made snooping easy – too easy, and as we’ve seen in the IRS and Justice Department overreaches, too tempting to those who have access. That will increase. The announcement of new drone research in the Grand Forks area is a reminder that our surveillance society only will get worse. If we don’t stand up for privacy now, freedom from intrusion soon will be a thing of the past.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.