Body cameras have become the solution of the day for stomping out discriminatory behavior against minorities by police officers. Cameras provide a neutral record of events, so we have a better idea what happened during an encounter. Some research even suggests that the presence of body cameras steeply reduce the use of force by officers and the number of citizens’ complaints.
But that raises a question: What’s to limit this type of solution only to police officers? It’s a slippery slope to an Orwellian future, where Big Brother could be watching all of us – for our own good, of course.
Consider health care, another interaction which produces potentially life-or-death outcomes. In general, African-Americans and other people of color receive inferior medical treatment, leading to higher death rates. David Williams, a professor of public health at Harvard, who has researched this issue writes that blacks and other minorities receive fewer diagnostic tests, fewer treatments and overall poorer-quality care – even after adjusting for variations in insurance, facilities, and seriousness of illness.
Leaving aside patient outcomes, there are also highly credible accusations that medical staff have groped and sexually abused sedated patients. Body cameras on doctors and nurses might well prevent such incidents, or provide evidence if they did occur.
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If the doctor’s office is off-limits, what about the classroom?
U.S. Department of Education data shows that black students are suspended or expelled at rates three times higher than whites, even though no studies examining the relationship between race, behavior and suspension have proven that black students misbehave more often. Currently, parents who insist their children are innocent or are being excessively punished for minor offenses have no evidence.
Make teachers wear body cameras, and parents would see and hear exactly what the teacher heard and saw. An overreaction? Keep in mind, a growing body of evidence shows that school punishments do long-term damage Students who are expelled or suspended are less likely to graduate, and more likely to end up involved with the criminal justice system.
Perhaps even our politicians should be required, by law, to wear body cameras at all campaign and fundraising events while they’re in, or running for, office. If that sounds unnecessary, recall that it was only because of a surreptitious recording that voters found out that 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney thinks there are 47 percent of Americans who “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
But this isn’t partisan. Personally, I’d welcome video or audio of what Hillary Clinton has to say to the people paying $353,000 to sit next to her and George Clooney at an upcoming fundraising dinner.
Sure, the officials, professionals or politicians could simply turn off their cameras – but that break in the recording log will be interpreted as evidence that the person was hiding something, and probably up to no good.
A recent article in an American Bar Association magazine summed up the legal landscape: “The battle for workplace privacy is over; privacy lost.” Employers have a right to monitor employees (provided the employees are aware of it) to measure productivity, prevent theft, promote workplace safety and so on. Advances in digital technology that vastly reduced the cost of cameras just accelerated this trend. Mass monitoring has begun where the need is critical (e.g., police stops) but also where the workers are least able to resist (sanitation workers, truck drivers, Amazon warehouse employees, and so on).
Higher-paid professionals mistakenly assume increased workplace surveillance will be confined to the hoi polloi. In reality, given the technology is available (and improving), all it may take is a high-profile incident or two. Imagine something analogous to the police shooting an unarmed person happening in a school or hospital, and how quickly that could trigger for demands for wider personal surveillance like body cameras. Already the ubiquity of smartphones has made ad hoc recording by employers, customers or colleagues almost effortless.
The NSA or iPhone hackers aren’t the greatest threat to our privacy. Instead, it may be ourselves – as we are tempted to trade our privacy for the benefits of reduced discrimination, improved productivity and reduced corruption.
Indeed, the world outlined above might be safer, more efficient and more honest. But it’s not a world I’d want to live in.
Steven Strauss, a visiting professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, is a special contributor to the Los Angeles Times.