Surveillance Cameras: Putting on Our Skis to Ride Down that Slippery Slope
In 2003, Eugene Volokh published an essay adaptation of his Harvard Law Review article, “The Mechanisms of the Slippery Slope.” The essay defends the slippery slope metaphor in two interesting ways. It argues that because law plays a powerful expressive role, it changes our thinking about certain behaviors. It can condition us to accept future policies that to today’s sensibilities would be unappealing. Today’s rules alter our attitudes and, in turn, de-sensitize us for more extreme changes in the law. These changes also can lead us to perilous decisions in the future by lowering the costs of certain activities, making future changes in policy politically attractive because they won’t cost us much.
In reading the essay today, I was struck by an example that Volokh provides as demonstrating the perils of the slippery slope: surveillance cameras. The essay asks us to consider a proposal to install video cameras on street lights to deter or catch criminals. Volokh explains that “[o]n its own, the plan may not seem that susceptible to police abuse, as long as the tapes are viewed only when someone reports a crime and otherwise recycled every day or two. Many people may be inclined to support installing the cameras, even if they would oppose a more intrusive extension of that policy, such as linking the cameras to face-recognition software or permanently archiving the tapes.” The slippery slope concern is that once government invests in buying and wiring these cameras, the cost of implementing comprehensive surveillance falls dramatically. This may persuade swing voters to endorse a broader surveillance plan, even if they would have opposed it on cost grounds at the outset. Moreover, the introduction of surveillance cameras changes our view of them: government thought them an effective way to combat crime (and terrorism) and hence broader surveillance may prove useful too. Perhaps we barely notice the cameras as we drive by them; our attitudes and fears have been changed, yet what led us to fear those cameras in the first place has not.
Volokh was spot on in his intuitions: today, six years after the essay’s publication, states and localities across the country employ surveillance cameras that do not just stream video to police departments for short time periods. Instead, in many states and localities, street surveillance cameras wirelessly transmit video footage to state and locallly-run fusion centers that use facial recognition software and other analytical tools like data mining to draw inferences about those images, all in the name of detecting and preventing future crimes and “hazards.” Whatever misgivings we may have had about surveillance cameras in 2003, they serve expansive ends in 2009. Perhaps, in a post 9/11 environment, we have become de-sensitized to surveillance aimed to combat terrorism, even though those cameras may very well be used in ways that having little to do with national security. Perhaps because the federal government gave states and localities the money to purchase them, they become more politically palatable. And perhaps it is because the public knows little about their use. No matter the reason, we seem to be skiing down the slippery slope.