Veterans of the military will be intimately familiar with the concept of mission creep — the idea of a mission gradually expanding beyond its initial, limited goals to broader ones impossible to fulfill. Increasingly, the term has entered the common vernacular as well, thanks to the unending conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, we see Portland — along with hundreds of other towns and cities, large and small, all over the world — deal with a different kind of creep: surveillance creep.

With the rapidly advancing capabilities and ready availability of surveillance technology, surveillance creep will be a major public policy issue all over the world in the next century. While the introduction of surveillance cameras in limited circumstances can help save lives, we run the risk of inuring the population to the idea of being under constant surveillance, especially in public places. Indeed, the proliferation of surveillance runs the risk of rendering the very concept of privacy obsolete.

Consider the idea of police body cameras, recently adopted by Portland and increasingly by other cities as well. The idea behind them may be a noble one: to record a police officer’s interactions with the public so as to limit the possibility of either abuse or mistakes by the officer. They raise a whole host of other issues, though, as Portland is discovering — like when they are on or off, who controls them, who owns the footage, and how long the footage is kept.

If police officers themselves choose when to turn the cameras on and off, then there’s every opportunity for officers to leave them off during an incident — whether out of ill intention or forgetfulness. That could negate the entire idea behind the cameras. But having them automatically on at all times doesn’t really make sense either. There are circumstances when officers’ interactions shouldn’t be recorded, like when they’re interviewing a sexual assault victim or talking to a confidential informant. Moreover, leaving them on constantly runs the risk of innocent civilians being surveilled — which, even if it’s constitutional to do in a public space, isn’t something a free society should encourage.

Even with the cameras operating properly, like any tool, they could be manipulated or abused by officers. An innocent person could get pulled over for a crime they didn’t commit, and though no charges are ever filed, the video of the stop ends up available to the public somehow, damaging their reputation. Or, a person could be recorded doing something unseemly and unethical but not necessarily illegal, like visiting their mistress or lying to their boss about being sick.

That’s why it was heartening to see Portland take a few steps towards limiting the use of cameras in recent days. The decision by the school board to request that body cameras not be used in public schools until a policy is developed for how the cameras will be used and where the information will be stored. One of the purposes of having school resource officers in the first place is to instill public trust in the police early on, and seeing them walk around with cameras all the time may not exactly help with that.

Even if officers at a school are responding to a criminal incident, it may not be wise to use body cameras. Juvenile records usually remain sealed, so even if a student is interacting with officers during an incident they can expect a higher level of privacy than an adult offender. While it’s nice to think that recordings of a suspect would be treated with the same degree as other records, those aren’t always treated properly either, and recordings are far more impactful than typewritten reports.

The other issue with schools is that they’re not quite the same as other public property: access can, and should, be very limited at times. In that sense, they’re not entirely in the public sphere, and that adds another expectation of privacy that an adult walking down the street doesn’t enjoy. The moratorium is a good first step while the police and the school board work out a comprehensive policy.

It was also good to see city councilors introduce a measure to ban facial recognition technology from being used. Portland would be wise to continue to severely limit all forms of public surveillance technology, and to use caution as new technology becomes available.

Years ago, there was widespread bipartisan consensus in Augusta to ban red-light cameras throughout Maine. Technology may have evolved since then, but we’re clearly a state that cares deeply about privacy, and that’s something that public officials would be wise to respect.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under:

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.