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Ottawa's Panopticon

Ottawa Police Chief Vernon White says he wants to install closed circuit security cameras throughout the downtown core.  Already in place at Strathcona and Cahill parks, the cameras would alert police to problems as they occurred.  Equipped with speakers, they also allow the observers to blare out directions to potential offenders from the comfort of the station, before deciding to send a squad car.

Has it really come to this?  Are we at the point where we are willing to completely abandon any semblance of privacy to an Orwellian vision of efficient policing? 

The most disturbing aspect of this proposal is the way that proponents so blithely cite the deterent impact of these cameras.  By informing the citizenry that they are being observed, the populace becomes less likely to commit offensive acts. 

Rideau-Vanier Councillor George Bédard, whose ward includes Rideau Street and the Byward Market, said the cameras could be a "smart investment." He credited cameras in Strathcona Park with curtailing graffiti and drinking after dark.

"It worked there, so why wouldn't it work on a public street?" he asked.

Mr. Bédard said the security of all residents outweighs people concerned about the Orwellian threat to privacy.

"If they are not doing anything criminal, why should they worry?" he asked.

Why should they worry? Well, Mr. Bedard, this is the first I was aware that City Parks close at 11 PM, and that any activity there might be recorded by a camera.  A late night walk in the park is, frankly, an innocent pleasure. As a teenager living in Ottawa, Kitchissippee Lookout was a prime spot for a young couple to stroll by the river late at night. No more, it seems. What other innocent pleasures might be curtailed by an overzealous city council, and closed circuit television cameras?

More to the point, however, is that the use of cameras as a deterrent is mind control.  Jeremy Bentham's eighteenth century panopticon was a prison designed to allow guards to observe prisoners 24×7 without the prisoners' knowledge.  The defining idea behind the panopticon was that the exertion of power through the constant uncertainty of knowing whether they were being observed or not would lead prisoners to better behavior.  Today these ideas are still in vogue in some places, including California's notorious Pelican Bay supermax facility, where prisoners are isolated 22.5 hours of the day, and observed 24×7. 

Chief White proposes to make Ottawa a virtual panopticon, where even the slightest transgression can be observed by the authorities, and where the mere presence of surveillance will curtail "illegal" acts.  Like lemmings to the cliff, we are abandoning all pretense of liberty in exchange for the dubious benefit of "security".

Recommended: 1984, Brazil, THX 1138, and Logan's Run. This is not the utopia of a secure, happy and safe citizenry that we're heading toward, but rather something very frightening.

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