Smile! You're on 'Law and Recorder'
by Josh Freed

PUBLICATION: Montreal Gazette
DATE: 2007.01.27

I'm about to become a film star - whenever I go shopping.

Each time I wander down St. Laurent Blvd., I'll soon be followed by cameras - police surveillance cameras taking shots of everyone on the street.

It's the latest episode in our growing "Law and Recorder" society that's testing the border between security and privacy.

Cameras are coming to my community because police say they've lowered crime and drug-pushing on St. Denis St., where a similar camera program started three years ago.

Frankly, I suspect the cameras just chased all the pushers elsewhere, including the Main.

Part of me thinks cameras are no big deal - who can argue with public safety? But another part wonders where all this spying on ourselves will stop?

If cameras work on my street, they'll soon spread to yours - and, eventually, the whole city. That's what's happened in England, the Big Brother capital of the world, where they now have one surveillance camera for every 14 people.

A report by Britain's privacy commissioner said Britons are liable to be filmed 300 times a day - from their apartment's lobby-cam to endless street-cams, bank-cams, office-cams and probably dental-cams - right until they're back in their bedroom. And who knows then?

Why do I care about being filmed - do I have something to hide? Uh ... yes.

When I walk down the street, I feel a sense of privacy even though I'm in public. I can scratch my belly, talk to myself or just belt out some opera songs - and I still feel invisible to all but a few passers-by.

But with cameras on every block, I will always wonder if I'm being watched - and so will you. What if you yell at your kid - or even slap him? Will the child protection squad arrest you? If you scarf down pizza in a disgusting gulp, will you end up on YouTube?

Just who are the people monitoring all this footage and how safe is the tape? Last week, the CIBC admitted that a computer drive had "disappeared," containing confidential information on half-a-million bank clients.

That's a routine story. Once cameras shoot the footage, you can bet some of it will become public.

I can imagine two bored surveillance guys watching footage of the Main: "Nice body on that babe, eh George? ... Can you zoom in? ... And look at that bald jerk singing opera - isn't he a journalist or something? ... Make me a dub."

It's not just police cameras spying on us. Every time I phone a company, I hear that mantra: "This call is being monitored to improve service" - so I never lose my temper on tape, no matter how bad the service.

Many people have call display and chirp "Hi Josh!" before I even speak. If their machine answers, I always leave a message - because many phones automatically record every number that calls. In our spy society, NOT leaving someone a message is like leaving a message that you didn't leave one.

Everyone knows everything we do. My bank recently called to ask why I had "uninvested funds" in my account - shouldn't I be buying a bank GIC? No - and it's not really their business.

Whenever I buy something larger than a DVD player, Visa security calls to make sure it's actually me who bought it - because it doesn't fit my "spending profile." The safer I get, the less privacy I have.

What next? I'll buy a leather jacket at the Bay and get an email from Visa recommending a jacket on sale at Simons? The message will ask why I'm wasting money when I already owe Visa plenty?

We even spy on ourselves. We Google people before we meet them. We photograph people secretly and expose them. Last week, a teacher was outed for screaming at a class while a student filmed him on a cellphone - - and the footage wound up on the national news.

Sure there are benefits to "Law and Recorder" life. Several muggings and murders have been solved because of hidden cameras. More police beatings have been revealed since that original Rodney King moment.

But the downside is that whenever you raise your voice in a tipsy barroom debate, or flirt with a waitress, or smoke a joint, you can wind up on cell-cam or restaurant-cam footage that finds its way to the Internet.

Eventually, we won't feel private outside our home, a soft version of countries like Iran and Syria where people have to whisper about anything sensitive.

To be fair, cameras on the Main are partly in response to a vandalism attack on Eddie, my local watchmaker. He'd recently moved to a newly renovated store when some moron welcomed him by etching graffiti on his windows - in acid.

I'm happy to have a camera watching Eddie's store to nab this guy. But I'm not sure I want to co-star in the film every time I walk down the Main.

This will definitely make me think twice about singing opera.