Honolulu Lite

Charles Memminger

With street cameras out,
Big Brother is napping

Big Brother is waiting. He should be watching. But his eyes are out. The one thing that George Orwell didn't envision when he peered far, far, far into the scary, efficient distant future -- all the way to 1984 -- is that the trouble with being an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-hassling little police state is that things just don't work. I mean, your toaster goes on the fritz, your computer crashes and the cable goes out more than you do. And let's not even talk about the Official Big Brother Thought Crime Electrical Torture Rack. Where are the double-A batteries when you need them?

A lot of people are worried about America turning into a police state, what with the Patriot Act and Attorney General John Ashcroft's fatherly suggestion that we keep an eye on our neighbors and report if they do anything un-American, like eat french fries and sauerkraut while watching "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" in a babushka. (Considering its more odious breaches of those parts of the Bill of Rights relating to search, seizure and arrest, the ironically titled Patriot Act could have gotten its title right out of the pages of Orwell's 1984 Newspeak Dictionary.)

But I'm here to tell you that even 20 years after Orwell's chilling vision of society under surveillance, all the glitches still have not been purged from the most basic state reconnaissance apparatuses.

HONOLULU'S super-duper police surveillance cameras, spread over Waikiki and Chinatown, malfunctioned almost as soon as they were installed. Now six of 32 cameras designed to catch criminals -- as "Candid Camera's" Allen Funt would say -- "in the act of being themselves" are down for the count.

The cameras are perched on utility poles, camouflaged to look like nothing more than mysterious, all-seeing eyeballs of glass. Theoretically, they can look up, down, sideways, close up, more close up and into your soul. Although, when the police let me operate one a few years ago from the comfort of the HPD substation on Hotel Street, all I saw was a rather seedy character sipping beer out of a paper bag and some dude picking his nose. Those were apparently the Camelot days of surveillance because now the cameras aren't even good for scoping out nose-pickers.

Turns out the city is in a legal tiff with the company hired to keep the cameras rolling. That company claims "fiber-optic" and "infrastructure" problems are beyond the scope of its contract. So the cameras just sit like extremely expensive utility pole ornaments while Orwell spins in his grave trying to figure out what the hell "infrastructure" means.

Come on, people. How are we going to get to the point where every individual is the subject of continual state scrutiny when we can't even keep the bums and nose-pickers under constant observation?

When a private company hired to keep the government's spyware up and running has the audacity to tell the Police Department to shove it and fix it yourself, the entire concept of totalitarian society is in jeopardy. First, all the street surveillance cameras will be broke, then the wiretap machinery will fail, "indefinite custody" facilities will close, the jackboot factories will go out of business. Then where will we be? Stuck with a society where people can do and think any old thing they want.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Charles Memminger, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail cmemminger@starbulletin.com



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