Candid Microphone was a popular radio show hosted by the late Allen Funt, who asked ordinary people oddball questions, not knowing they were being recorded. When they gave bizarre and funny answers, the audience collapsed into laughter when Funt told them they were on national radio. It was a formula that worked and ABC picked up the show for TV, employing a hidden camera. It was renamed Candid Camera, which debuted Aug. 10, 1948, and ran on and off for 56 years. Funt’s catch phrase— “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera”—caught on and is still heard today at the conclusion of well-timed practical jokes.
In reality, Candid Camera is a metaphor for what is happening today, namely, we are all on candid cameras. Cameras are pervasive—in stores, streets, airports, toll booths, and police cars—embedded everywhere we go in the name of security. To be sure, we are still navigating our way through the early years of the Age of Terrorism and a rising epidemic of domestic violence. However uncomfortable we might be with these intrusions into our lives, and while we might not smile about being on one of these candid cameras, most Americans are willing to let security trump privacy. On the eve of the New York City Marathon, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly revealed that the NYPD had mounted free-standing cameras, 2,100 in all, along the 26-mile route. After what happened at the Boston Marathon in April, when images of the bombers were captured by a camera mounted on a department store, no one was complaining.
But the collection of data about the American people goes much further than capturing our images. No different than the use of cameras, the collection of massive amounts of data is part of a concerted effort to afford us greater security. The National Security Agency (NSA) is vacuuming every scrap of information about us, our opponents, and friends overseas. It is one thing for the NSA to spy on those living outside of our borders. Spying has been going on since the dawn of civilization. But it is a far different story when it comes to the NSA’s collection of data about ordinary citizens. The NSA is vacuuming all of our communications— phone calls, Web searches, Facebook and Twitter messaging—in essence, everything we send out and receive.
When we contracted with purveyors of computer websites, Google and others, we never imagined that our searches and all sorts of electronic communications, more often than not the minutiae of our lives, would be of any interest to the government. This being said, it is in this minutiae where the NSA hopes to find key words, nuggets so-to-speak, which when connected with other data will lead not to our doorstep but to the doorstep of those who plan to do harm.
A Congressional committee has recommended limitations on this surveillance and we have been assured that the government is not opening our mail or listening to our calls. We are still protected by the Fourth Amendment and a long list of legal decisions that protect us from unreasonable searches without probable cause. Still, some argue that in time, we will move in the direction of a quasi-totalitarian society as the collection of our data accelerates. Such allegations have been aired before. However, while many people were shocked to learn what the NSA has been doing, it has not coalesced into a tidal wave of protest, with most of us believing it just may be necessary in this new environment where we have come to learn security remains conditional.
It’s Candid Camera on an epic scale, and we can only hope that we can smile about our long cherished desire for privacy being preserved.