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Naked, but not alone

‘Naked Crowd’ asks price of shedding liberties

By Leigh E. Rich

The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age
By Jeffrey Rosen
Random House
January 2004
288 pages

Our greatest fear just might be fear itself—especially with the din of pleas for heightened security in our post-September 11 world.

But while the public and many of our leaders may be ready to compromise privacy and liberty with surveillance cameras or national ID cards in the name of safety and defense, law professor Jeffrey Rosen raises the idea of preventing the constitutional baby from being tossed out with the technology-driven bathwater in The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age.

Rosen begins his timely—if not vitally eye-opening and somewhat alarming—tale by exposing a general willingness to embrace high-priced technology that may not be able to deliver the security it promises. Even if it can, Rosen asks how high a price Americans are willing to pay.

After September 11, for example, a screening device was tested at the Orlando International Airport that basically renders every passenger naked before the technology’s operators. While some concede this invasion of privacy is acceptable in exchange for safer airline travel, Rosen emphasizes that the “Naked Machine” isn’t our only option.

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a modified device “that extracts the images of concealed objects and projects them onto a sexless mannequin. The lurking image of the naked body is then scrambled into an unrecognizable and nondescript blob. … The more discreet version of the Naked Machine—let’s call it the Blob Machine—guarantees exactly the same amount of security without depriving liberty or invading privacy.”

Rosen isn’t hopeful, however, that such technology-driven measures are the solutions modern society seeks. And he notes that our anxieties about safety and security aren’t a distinctive fallout of September 11. Instead, citing philosophers and social scientists, Rosen asserts our world is risky because it lacks traditional boundaries and markers of identity—merely a consequence and a sign of modernity. The “question of whether trust is possible in a society of strangers is not unique to 9/11: It has been an enduring social challenge of the modern era.”

Add to the mixture an increase in television viewing and an explosion of cable news channels—what Rosen deems “twenty-four-hour purveyors of alarm”—and the public is likely to be “moved by images rather than arguments,” Rosen paraphrases Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd, “and the images most likely to impress a crowd are the most dramatic and therefore the least typical.”

Rosen is more concerned in The Naked Crowd with how we will choose to respond to such anxieties that grow out of interminable images of events such as September 11, anthrax scares, mad cow disease, or the case of the Beltway Sniper. “This cycle fuels a demand for draconian and symbolic but often poorly designed laws and technologies of surveillance and exposure,” he writes, “to eliminate the risks that are, by their nature, difficult to reduce.”

In examining this topic in his intelligent and thorough yet accessible read about law and society, Rosen relies on the academic works of John Stuart Mill, philosopher Michel Foucault, and sociologists Erving Goffman and Anthony Giddens, among others; he interviews American entrepreneurs such as Oracle’s Larry Ellison and executives of risk-detection company HNC Software and face-recognition developers Visionics; and he travels abroad to evaluate Britain’s proliferation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras.

Since the mid-1990s, Britain has installed approximately “2.5 million surveillance cameras … and, in fact, there may be far more.” CCTV is so widespread, Rosen notes, that some have predicted it will become the “fifth utility” alongside gas, water, electricity and telecommunications.

Despite the amount of money the British government has invested in the mass surveillance system, however, several studies reviewed by the British Home Office in 2002 conclude that CCTV has had no effect on violent crime. Instead, Rosen drives home his point, it has perhaps only made people feel safer.

Moreover, Rosen reveals that when “you put a group of bored, unsupervised men in front of live video screens and allow them to zoom in on whatever happens to catch their eye, they tend to spend a fair amount of time leering at women” or they “focus on young men, especially those with dark skin.”

Similar technology hasn’t fared any better at home, either: September 11 terrorist Mohammad Atta took several trial flights the week before the attacks to make sure he didn’t set off any alarms in the airport’s Computer Assisted Passenger Profiling System (CAPPS); “a test of the best face-recognition systems, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, found that they failed to identify matches a third of the time”; and often face-recognition systems can be duped by simple disguises. Rosen makes a case for “targeted searches based on human intelligence”—like those used by Israeli airline El Al—suggesting they “are likely to be more effective at catching terrorists than computer algorithms.”

Whatever solutions we opt for, however, Rosen’s main thesis is that we do not have to let our anxiety overrun our constitutionally protected rights of liberty and privacy. In the end, The Naked Crowd is more than just a cautionary tale. It is a call for public demand and political action that allow us to have our cake and eat it, too:

“One ideal of America insists that your opportunities shouldn’t be limited by your profile in a database. … If the twenty-first century proves to be a time when this ideal is abandoned—a time of surveillance cameras and creepy biometric face-scanning in Times Square—then Osama bin Laden will have inflicted an even more terrible blow than we now imagine.”

Rich, L. E. (2004, January 30). ‘Naked Crowd’ asks price of shedding liberties. [Review of the book The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age by Jeffrey Rosen, J.D.] Rocky Mountain News.

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