In the brilliant 1967 British television series The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan portrayed a character known to the audience only as No. 6, who was imprisoned in an isolated, outwardly idyllic, crime-free oceanfront community identified simply as The Village.
Far from a true paradise, The Village was actually a platform designed for pervasive surveillance, complete with hidden cameras, microphones and other eavesdropping devices entwined throughout its structure.
No. 6 was always under the watchful gaze of cameras -- his every move and gesture recorded and analyzed by unseen observers.
There are those in the world today who seem to view the mind-set of The Village as the preferred model for 21st century law enforcement and are well on their way toward its implementation.
Panic over the D.C.-area sniper has brought forth a stream of recommendations from the crime and terrorism experts on 24-hour news channels. A frequent refrain is that if only we had more cameras, we'd be safer both from such random attacks and from the vast number of terrorist cells we're now told lurk on nearly every street corner.
For those who dare complain about video surveillance, the standard law enforcement response is that there's no expectation of privacy in public places.
Given the capabilities of today's technology, this is utter nonsense.
Let's say a creepy little guy in a trench coat started following you around whenever you left your house.
He takes notes about everywhere you go and everything you do. He records the stores you shop in, the people you visit, everything about you that he can see. And he keeps following you until you return home and close the curtains on all your windows.
What does he do with all those notes? How long does he keep them? Who else has access to them? Most of us would find this situation intolerable. We'd probably want to kick his teeth in, or worse.
Yet the ability of modern cameras and related computer and recording systems to collect and preserve vast quantities of surveillance data is creating the technological equivalent of that nasty little guy on a vast scale, with a similar lack of realistic accountability, regulation or controls.
But the cameras and their hidden infrastructures are relatively inconspicuous, and we're promised an array of public-safety benefits from their use. Most people seem happy to accept this, regardless of the systems' ineffectiveness and potential for abuses (including voyeurism on the part of operators and more serious privacy violations).
In Great Britain, where surveillance cameras have been springing up like mushrooms for many years, reports
suggest that people accept the prying eyes, even though the authorities' reports of related crime reduction are hotly disputed by many independent analysts.
Around the world, there's been much fanfare over the installation of new computerized face-recognition systems. Originally promoted as tools to find serious offenders -- criminals, terrorists and the like -- there's now talk of using them to track deadbeat dads and other less dangerous culprits.
Perhaps citizens owing library fines will be next.