Surveillance ≠ safety

A few years ago Penn State began spending millions installing new surveillance systems across its University Park campus. The proliferation of surveillance at Penn State, as in our society in general, changes the character of the community.

Smart, limited surveillance can make sense—but blanket surveillance is a corrosive that changes the character of communities in a damaging way. Its effect is to leave no common place free of cameras, and the effect of cameras watching every public space works to defeat the very purpose of public spaces.

Do you remember childhood? Do you remember what it was like to play when your parents and their friends were with you, hanging nearby but paying just enough attention to interject or admonish on occasion? Now do you remember as you grew up a bit and would meet friends someplace in the neighborhood—maybe a nearby woods or creek or field or dead end street? There was a place when you could truly be alone, or at least be with friends without a watchful eye. Completely different spaces—one public but regulated, and the other a genuinely free.

In the article covering Penn State’s push toward surveillance, an administrator named offers the justification that surveillance is “part of our society.” This is a strikingly unthoughtful remark. All variety of crime is “part of our society” too. What administrators like this are really saying is something like: “Don’t look to universities to do anything other than reflexively embrace the fashions of the culture.”

A community with a high degree of neighborly interaction and trust—that is, a healthy culture—is not a place that requires surveillance.

In old films you’ll notice characters sometimes hop into their cars, pull down the visor, and catch a falling set of keys for the ignition. The car doors weren’t just unlocked—the keys were kept in the car! These were communities that trusted themselves, even while knowing there was always a risk a bad actor might take advantage of that atmosphere of trust.

While networked technology makes things like mass surveillance possible, the paradox is that those networked technologies have the effect in this case of creating thousands of individualized, invisible social moats. They corrode community culture by outsourcing its most vital function, which is to know your neighbor well enough to watch his back.

We can’t create safe spaces by surveilling them in order to assign blame or solve crimes after the fact. What we need are policies that fosters trust and personal relationships. This means towns where you can leave your car open. Campuses where you can trust your dormmates to care enough about you to keep their eyes open for you.

It’s true that surveillance is “part of our society,” but universities especially should know that it doesn’t have to be, and that the safest communities are those without surveillance.

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