Camera Phones vs. Crime: Now We're Talking

On Wednesday, Mayor Bloomberg announced that New York will be the first city with 911 call centers able to receive images and videos from cell phones and computers. If you witness a crime, you can not only call in – you can send in a picture or video as well.

This is a great idea that can make us all safer. Often the biggest problem a 911 operator has is getting enough good information from the caller. Sometimes the caller is emotionally distraught. Sometimes there’s confusion and background noise. Sometimes there’s a language barrier. Giving callers the opportunity to use all the communications tools at their disposal will help operators dispatch the right help faster.

Still Images and videos can also help identify and prosecute criminals. Memories are notoriously inaccurate. Photos aren’t perfect, but they provide a different sort of evidence – one that, with the right safeguards, can be used in court.

The worry is that New York will become a city of amateur sleuths and snitches, turning each other in to settle personal scores or because of cultural misunderstandings. But the 911 service has long avoided such hazards. Falsely reporting a crime is itself a serious crime, which discourages people from using 911 for anything other than a true emergency.

Since 1968, the 911 system has evolved smartly with the times. Calls are now automatically recorded. Callers are now automatically located by phone number or cell phone location.

Bloomberg’s plan is the next logical evolution – one that all of us should welcome. Smile, suspected criminals: you’re on candid camphone.

Categories: Privacy and Surveillance

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.