Canadian Consulting Engineer

Enter the fortress era

Even before the terrorist attacks last September put the West on high alert, we were under much more surveillance than ever before. The silent cameras, and the bored operators in the central monitorin...

May 1, 2002  By Bronwen Parsons

Even before the terrorist attacks last September put the West on high alert, we were under much more surveillance than ever before. The silent cameras, and the bored operators in the central monitoring stations behind them, spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, watching our every move in airports, gas stations, shopping malls, office lobbies, schools, parking lots and anywhere else a building owner or authority decides is necessary. A recent television documentary estimated that a person going about his or her business comes into a security camera’s range on average six times an hour. Britain, which has 300,000 cameras on the lookout, is leading the world in installing the technology.

Though experts debate whether the increased surveillance has deterred crime to a meaningful extent, it has saved the life of at least one individual. Cameras on a city street in Britain caught a man brutally being beaten outside a nightclub, and the security operators notified the police and ambulance in time to prevent a killing. Cameras also help secure convictions, although here in Canada, convenience store robbers have quickly learned to don masks and easily thwart detection.

In North America, where individual rights and privacy are sacrosanct, there is much apprehension about video surveillance. Ontarians even resisted having cameras installed on traffic intersections to deter red-light runners a few years ago, and privacy advocates in the city of Oakland in California have twice succeeded in lobbying against surveillance cameras being installed on their streets.

On one side of the debate are those who ask why anyone should be afraid of observation if they are not doing anything wrong. On the other side are those who fear governments and corporations will misuse the information for sinister purposes. One academic study, for example, found inequities in how camera operators watched different social groups; they spent much more time focusing on young men, and especially blacks, than on the general population.

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Like it or not, security technology is a booming business, as shown by the size of the crowds attending the Security International exhibit in Toronto (see page 42). Exhibitors were selling everything from infrared cameras to mag locks, fire alarms, burglar systems, perimeter fencing, cabling, signalling systems, transformers and guard dogs. Ironically, the price of perserving our free western lifestyle is to build fortresses around ourselves. And we should not forget that we are wielding a two-edged sword. As the police know only too well, criminals are just as eager — and apparently just as able — to acquire the latest cameras and other electronic barriers to keep intruders out of their compounds as are those on the law-abiding side of the fence.

Incidentally, readers may wonder at my new name and photograph. No, I’m not trying to evade authorities or even debt collectors by taking on a new alias. I got married last year and have decided to take my husband’s name. I’ve found it causes too much trouble and confusion to keep one identity professionally and another in my private life. Besides, my new name sounds so virtuous, I’ll surely be above suspicion… Bronwen Parsons

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