Big Brother? He is us


I don’t like the idea of “Big Brother” monitoring our day-to-day activities any more than anyone else, but the presence during the Festival of the Bells of the “SkyWatch” mobile surveillance tower didn’t bother me. In fact, I thought it was a good thing, given that it was here for special event use only.

Hillsboro Police Chief Todd Whited arranged for the tower months ago through coordination with Ohio’s Department of Homeland Security. It was provided free of charge to the city. In this day and age, can you have too much careful surveillance of big crowds in public places?

During the festival, thousands of people gather each year in downtown Hillsboro, many of them from outside the area. The ability of SkyWatch to provide a 360-degree view of thousands of people congregated in the four-block area gave law enforcement some extra sets of eyes from an elevated vantage point, and augmented the usual uniformed police presence on the ground.

But a few people were upset, and our story on it, after it was posted on Facebook, drew some derogatory comments among the general expressions of support. (And as often happens, the back-and-forth on Facebook quickly devolved into a completely unrelated debate, this time over the merits of concealed carry.)

SkyWatch would not be welcome as a permanent fixture, and some places around the country where it was installed long-term have seen it removed after complaints were received. But for big sporting or concert events in metropolitan areas, or even small-town weekend fairs or festivals, what’s the problem?

Complaints about electronic or video monitoring of the general population are increasingly incongruous coming from a society that voluntarily wires itself for easy tracking and surveillance, or announces its movements across a variety of Internet platforms.

Virtually everyone who carries a cell phone is equipping themselves with a device that lets their movements be tracked, not only by law enforcement but by anyone else with access to the rather simple and available means of tapping into a cell phone signal.

On social media, millions of Americans willingly share photographs, details and time stamps of their whereabouts with hundreds of “friends” and potentially millions of complete strangers. Many seem not to realize or care that the information they are providing is catnip to those with a criminal bent.

“We’re on vacation!”

“I’m shopping in Eastgate today.”

“Not looking forward to my dentist appointment tomorrow afternoon.”

“Going to the movies Friday night with my friends from high school I haven’t seen in 10 years. So excited!”

I’m also always amazed at the previously personal and private bits of information people share on social media, often complete with photographs or video.

“Can anyone tell me what this rash might be?”

“The divorce was tough, but anxious to start my new life in my new house. Here are some pics of me and my daughters getting settled in!”

“Got pulled over for DUI on Tuesday. Anyone know a good lawyer?”

Most people today casually and publicly reveal more information about themselves in the course of an average day than any law enforcement agency would dream of asking a judge to issue a warrant for in years past. No need for wiretaps or tracking devices when we save them the trouble and track and wiretap ourselves, with our cell phones, our Internet logins, our instant messages, our emails and our social media posts.

In this day and age, the best policy is to assume we are under surveillance the minute we walk out our door every day, aside from our own voluntary monitoring even behind closed doors. Whether it’s security cameras, the proliferation of small drones equipped with cameras, or someone across the street with a smart phone shooting pictures or video, no one can expect to be invisible anymore.

George Orwell’s futuristic society has arrived, but not due to any mandate from an authoritarian police state. No, the general population has not only welcomed Big Brother, we created him first, and then built a spare bedroom for him.

So the fact that there were people upset about a rather rudimentary hydraulic tower with some cameras on it, located in plain view in downtown Hillsboro for one special event, is difficult to comprehend. Anyone inclined to worry about such things has so much more along those same lines to be concerned about, since so many of us broadcast our actions almost minute by minute, and there’s no warrant necessary for what we willingly and publicly give away.

I asked Chief Whited on Monday if he was happy with the surveillance tower. He said he was, and thankfully there were no major problems during the festival. He agreed that its presence alone helped serve as a deterrent, and its ability to monitor the uptown area 24 hours a day was another bonus.

SkyWatch is gone now from our fair city, having served its purpose. So for those who were skittish about the eyes in the sky, it’s safe to go outside again – except for everyone else who is watching, recording, storing and sharing in multiple ways, in a society where privacy is but a fond memory.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.

By Gary Abernathy

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