According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans by a large margin favor installing video surveillance devices in public places in order to provide greater security, with 78 percent of participants saying such surveillance is a good idea.
The poll was taken in the wake of the bombings in Boston on Marathon Monday and the results likely reflect the very real anxiety that such horrific events can produce. The positive reaction to greater surveillance is natural and understandable. But that does not necessarily mean that it will lead to sound public policy.
It remains that it is always easier to give away someone else's privacy interests, especially hypothetically. Most people cannot imagine ever being the target of government surveillance—for them, the potentially ubiquitous video recording devices will be aimed at someone else.
That is fine as far as it goes, but the fact is that, under the Fourth Amendment doctrine for determining whether you have a protectable privacy right as against the government, the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that any expectation of privacy you assert must be objectively reasonable. We all do lots of things in public that we assume to be private—like talking on cell phones, text messaging, and even having a conversation with the person walking next to you, and believe the assumption to be reasonable because we do not really expect anyone nearby actually to listen to what we are saying or texting. But the fact that someone could do so, according to the Court, eliminates any true expectation of privacy. And even if that were not the case, could we say any of these communications reasonably should be deemed private when the government has the capacity to record and review all of them?
It could be argued that the problem lies not in our actual expectations but in Fourth Amendment doctrine itself. But despite noises from some justices in recent years—like Justice Sotomayor's concurring opinion in the GPS case from last year, United States v. Jones—it's far from clear that a major doctrinal shift is coming.
What is interesting, though, is that just as we seem willing to allow the government greater surveillance capabilities, we balk at the potential of new technology like Google Glasses to allow people to accomplish a similar end, by surreptitiously taking photos and short videos of anyone who happens to be nearby. Perhaps it is the fact that this technology allows our privacy to be invaded without our knowledge or consent that so bothers us. Whatever the reason, legislators in many state and local governments have begun exploring efforts to regulate these Google devices, which are not yet on the market.
Such regulation would seem to indicate that people are at least somewhat concerned to maintain some degree of privacy in public. But more than anything it reveals our ambivalence about privacy. Trading privacy for security seems like good policy to many, but it's worth remembering that the constitutional expectation of privacy test historically has functioned as a one-way ratchet, with the scope of privacy as against the government continually being diminished as it becomes more difficult to maintain that expectations of privacy are reasonable.