Turning inner space into outer space

April 11, 2015

Video is everywhere, and that might be a good thing

A screen grab from a video shows a South Carolina police officer firing at a man as he runs away.

With the increasing presence of surveillance cameras around us, there is concern that we’re headed for the type of society where authorities can keep a constant eye on us.

But with smartphones in just about every pocket and purse, the tables may be turned. Citizens can watch the watchers.

That’s what happened last week when a passerby in South Carolina rushed to the scene of an incident involving a police officer and a man pulled over for a broken tail light. The man wound up dead and the official story, at first, was that it was the unfortunate result of scuffle between the two.

The video told a different story. We now know that an unarmed man was shot in the back eight times as he ran away. The officer was fired and charged with murder.

The person who made the video sensed that a situation was unfolding and ran toward it with the idea of getting it on the record. There are those who suggest this was an act of journalism, and I tend to agree. Most people would have run away or at least laid low.

There is now talk of making police wear video cameras that record their every action. In a lot of cases this might protect them from false accusations, but it would also have the sad side effect of showing they — the good guys — can’t always be trusted.

There are now hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras installed around the world. An estimated one billion smartphones — all of them with cameras — have been sold worldwide since 2007.

A question raised by the South Carolina video is whether it was a one-off. Did someone with a video camera just happen to come by and record the one and only time a white police officer has ever deliberately shot and killed an unarmed black man. It seems unlikely, and that makes it all the more disturbing.

If ubiquitous video puts everyone — good guys and bad guys — on their best behaviour then the sacrifice of our privacy might be worth it.