Here's a link to the full Request for Information that triggered the story.
The proposal initially sounds innocuous enough: The City, together with the Port Authority, wants to take reasonable anti-terrorism measures to guard the region's rivers and highways and bridges. That's "Phase One," with implementation planned for this Fall.
Phase Two, with no fixed date attached, is described this way:
Phase Two will deploy cameras in City business districts to promote a safe corridor around the business perimeters and encourage city neighborhood business development. The objective of this phase is to deploy cameras in the business districts and tie them into the existing network developed in Phase One. The Phase Two project is not scheduled at this time.
And here is Phase Three:
Finally, Phase Three will deploy cameras in six-square block area increments in high-risk neighborhoods. As noted in Phase Two camera systems deployed in this phase will also be tied into the existing systems for the final development of a citywide network which will potentially change the way we provide public safety and deploy public safety personnel. The actual locations for Phase Two and Three have yet to be determined, however, the locations may be confirmed before the procurement of any network. Please note that the initial phases are intended as a pilot for the expanded citywide camera network which may be implemented pending the success of the pilot.
I added the bold font to that last sentence because it's the kicker, and it's what I meant when I told Rich that the anti-terrorism rationale is a pretext -- for surveillance to promote general purpose public safety and neighborhood business development. Hopefully the public will have something to say about the plan. Hopefully the public will respond not to the anti-terrorism rationale (in political terms, who could be against that?), but to the proposal's Benthamite implications.
Benthamite implications? It's one thing (though it's not necessarily a good thing) to be watched when you know that you're being watched. It's something else entirely -- and rarely a good thing -- to be watched all the time, when you don't necessarily know it. Jeremy Bentham, known generally for sponsoring a flavor of utilitarian philosophy, also designed the Panopticon. Wikipedia describes the building:
The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed or not, thus conveying a "sentiment of an invisible omniscience." In his own words, Bentham described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example."
Finally, the Panopticon, like any surveillance regime, raises Plato's question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? Back to what I told Rich: The Pittsburgh plan is completely silent on what I call "the human back end." So Pittsburgh arranges to collect all of this surveillance data. What then? Who sees the data? What's done with the data? When? And why? For the dystopian version, watch Enemy of the State. It's not just local law enforcement watching. It's the bad side of the National Security Agency.
But we don't need to invoke dystopia; more likely than comprehensive and conspiratorial government abuse is comprehensive municipal incapability. Do the City and the Port even have the resources to make the program effective for its intended purpose? Or would Pittsburgh be collecting a lot of data without the ability to make meaningful use of it? My understanding of the British and German experiences with these CCTV systems is that the systems are very, very expensive -- and yield very, very modest -- or at least often unscrutinized -- benefits. Pittsburgh can do this better? Would this money -- more than $800k of local money -- be better spent on more cost-effective public safety initiatives?