There is something quaint in our passionate sensitivity to personal privacy, which comes across as a mixture of uncompromising democratic sensibilities and an inexplicable guilt complex. The queasiness over allowing Google’s Street View cameras to roam among us fits neatly into this paradigm: We don’t want strangers following us about in our daily lives, just as we don’t want any satellite images of our homes and property to be made available to government agencies and other prying eyes. In the first case, it is completely natural to want to keep our movements private, even though our culture prizes few things as highly as knowing someone else’s business and in bragging about what we do. So how many secrets can we have? In the second case, the only way that forestry and town-planning agencies can keep check on illegal building is through aerial or satellite photos. Making these available easily and at no cost will only cause trouble for the hundreds of thousands of Greeks who keep pushing back the boundaries of their property and the law. So the sooner these are brought into action the better.

It is easy to explain a sense of unease at prying eyes because, throughout their modern history, Greeks were under the thumb of an authoritarian right-wing establishment, with the police running networks of spies ranging from apartment block doormen to journalists to bureaucrats and politicians. The military dictatorship of 1967-74, with its jailings, torture and forced internal exile for thousands of left-wing activists and others was the apotheosis of this system and, with its collapse, its death rattle. Since 1974, Greeks have guarded their privacy with missionary zeal. Leftist, extreme left-wing parties and anarchist groups see themselves as sleepless guardians against the return of any semblance of authoritarianism. These groups are at the forefront of smashing surveillance cameras in public spaces, including those dedicated to traffic control.

The theory is fine: Cameras – and those behind them – have no business prying on our private lives. In practice, though, the blanket opposition to cameras in public places results in our throwing away one of the principal weapons available for the public’s safety. Closed-circuit television systems may not be able to prevent a suicide terrorist attack in a public place, but they are definitely a help in containing normal crime in places where it is impossible to have a permanent police presence, such as on every platform of every subway station and desolate parking lots. In every major city, including Athens, CCTV systems help to maintain security across a wide subway network.

If we can accept security cameras in our metro system, why can’t we accept them in our streets? Is it because until now we have not been plagued by the kind of violent crime that other cities have had to deal with? If we were to try out electronic surveillance systems in the depressed parts of the city center that have now been abandoned to street criminals, and the measure helped increase safety, would people change their minds? Would putting such a lid on crime be worse than allowing neo-fascist groups to exploit public fears at the presence of illegal immigrants?

These questions need to be answered. Greece spent 250 million euros on electronic surveillance equipment in preparation for the 2004 Olympics, which the state privacy watchdog then pulled the plug on. It is incomprehensible that the government, state agencies and political and civic organizations cannot come to a modus vivendi regarding the best possible compromise between privacy and security. Citizens, too, must be consulted in the debate between the need to safeguard privacy and the need to maintain security on our streets and stop the tradition of land-grabbing in the countryside. Cameras are valuable weapons, as long as they are used correctly.

Editorial in Athens Plus, 29 May, 2009

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