Examiner Non-Story of the Week: 1984 Edition
Though the Washington Examiner's reporters typically do good work, the tabloid is frequently guilty of being...well...a tabloid. Perhaps the worst example of its tendency towards sensationalism was the infamous "Businesses hate the 15th Street bike lane" story, which was thoroughly debunked by a blogger team effort. So it's a good idea to keep your eye out for thinly-sourced, ideologically-motivated stories.
Case in point: Last week, Freeman Klopott wrote about a District plan to aggregate video streams from public agencies and private businesses into a central monitoring facility at the Joint All-Hazards Operation Center on MLK Avenue SE.
"Big Brother may already be watching you in the District, and he will soon have a lot more eyes trained in your direction," the lede read, accompanied by an ominous image of a camera lens. "The city's homeland security agency is planning to add thousands of security cameras from private businesses around the nation's capital and the Metro system to the thousands of electronic eyes that authorities are already monitoring 24/7." If that sounds scary, read Klopott's tweets: "On the train, driving to work, at the bank, D.C. homeland security will soon be watching you everywhere," he wrote, linking to the story, which was then picked up on conspiracy theory sites across the internet.
The problem is–as the story goes on to explain–there is no imminent threat that this would actually happen. The report that Klopott refers to contains one sentence referring to the initiative: "In forthcoming years, HSEMA will begin to integrate other CCTV systems such as the District of Columbia Housing Authority, Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, CSX Corporation, and local private businesses." Full stop. A spokeswoman for HSEMA clarified to Klopott that there is no timeline for implementation, "no businesses have been identified for inclusion," and none of the cameras have panopticonic features like face-recognition software. Far from the sinister scheme that would appear to be in place at first glance.
Still, Klopott managed to find "critics" of the non-plan. George Washington University law professor Jeff Rosen, a reporter's go-to source for comment on civil liberties, said linking public and private surveillance capabilities "might be viewed as excessive." Oh, and some random dude on the street said, "We're heading to '1984.'"
The other issue Klopott raises with the idea of aggregating video feeds is cost-benefit: Councilmember Phil Mendelson questions whether the cost of centralizing video feeds can be justified by reduced crime. But according to HSEMA, bringing together feeds from the city and Metro wouldn't require adding staff at all; they would just be brought to a central location.
If you look at HSEMA's plan without the Big Brother overtones, it appears to be just common sense efficiency: If you're going to have cameras all over the city, why wouldn't you have the people who watch them be able to communicate with each other quickly and easily? If private businesses already have CCTV systems, why pay for more cameras, when their video streams could just be fed into a central location? If terrorists actually did mount an attack on D.C., would you want evidence to be missed just because no one could see what was happening all at once? Aren't hard-to-spot cameras much more useful than random bag searches on the Metro, and less intrusive into our daily lives?
In other words, what's the big freaking deal?
Citizens are right to twitch when they hear the government gathering more information about their lives. But from what we know about this plan–from what HSEMA seems to know about its own plan–it looks like the kind of thing that would have helped avoid the stupid agency disjunction that allowed 9/11 to happen, rather than the meaningless flailing that governments do to look like they're making you more safe, when they're really just creating a hassle.
But hey, fearmongering about an overbearing government drives traffic, which is the modern-day yellow-journalism equivalent of selling papers, to which even the most badass are susceptible.