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How Many Eyes are Watching? Video Surveillance and Privacy

by Jared Newnam
April 8, 2010

More and more Americans are on the verge of starring in films thanks to a proliferation of surveillance cameras used in law enforcement. But unlike actors on the silver screen, these film stars are not going to be winning Oscars any time soon.

In New York, the number of cameras being operated in Greenwich Village and Soho jumped from 142 to 2,227 during an eight-year period ending in 2005, according to a report published by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

In Chicago, an undisclosed number of cameras have been linked together in what is being called "Operation Virtual Shield." A recent Wall Street Journal article about the program explained that police surveillance is now being aided by cameras operated by other government agencies, and even privately owned cameras.

It's happening outside big cities, too. A November report from National Public Radio described the case of the tiny town of Tiburon, California, where the council decided to install a handful of cameras on the two roads that lead into and out of town, so the city can monitor traffic.

Law enforcement officials see the cameras as a boon since they help with identifying criminals and solving crimes. Critics question the cost and effectiveness of the cameras, and lament the paranoia and distrust that they say comes with constantly being watched.

Denny Powers, Criminal Justice Program Director at South University, is a proponent of surveillance cameras. Once someone sets foot into the public sphere, "there is no expectation of privacy and the Fourth Amendment does not apply," he says. "The police or whomever may film in public as long as they have a legal right to be in the place from which the film is being made."

In order to obtain video footage in a criminal case, investigators don't have to do all of the leg work that's required to obtain a wire tap, Powers points out. Often all that's required to access soundless video footage is a simple subpoena. He points to a November 2009 report in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin that explains legal findings regarding surveillance cameras inserted on the top of utility poles. In one case, the California Supreme Court decided that it was perfectly legal for police to use a flyover to observe an individual's fenced-in back yard because there was reasonable suspicion that this individual was growing marijuana. The court found that it was not unlawful for the police to investigate in this manner since "one who grows illicit drugs in his backyard is [not] ‘entitled to assume' his unlawful conduct will not be observed by a passing aircraft or by a power company repair mechanic on a pole overlooking the yard."

The use of strategically placed cameras can aid in investigations because of their inconspicuous nature. If a police officer has the right to be where a video camera can be installed, proponents argue, then it's not an invasion of privacy to insert a camera in that space.

But Jay Stanley, Public Education Director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program, has a different take on the trend. He says there are two levels of risk with the rise in ubiquitous surveillance. The first issue is that footage could be misused, he says, noting the case of a suicide that a surveillance camera recorded in the lobby of a public housing facility in New York. The video made its way onto the internet.

The second issue, Stanley says, is that the widespread use of video surveillance "will really have an effect on our public spaces. Most people act differently when they're being watched by the authorities. And when you're being videotaped, you lose control of who your audience is."

Privacy advocates argue that there is little oversight regarding who can get access to video footage. And Stanley questions whether the technology is cost-effective, noting debate about an initiative in England to spend more than $800 million to install one million cameras throughout London. A 2009 study reported in The Independent newspaper suggests that only one crime has been solved for every 1,000 cameras in use. Studies run in this country have also raised questions about how well cameras act as a crime deterrent. Researchers at New York University, for example, found "no persuasive evidence" that surveillance cameras installed at one housing complex in Manhattan significantly reduced crime, according to a 2009 write up of the research in a blog published by the New York Times. The researchers also looked at the impact of cameras at a second complex and found stronger evidence of an impact on minor crime, but not major crime.

"Americans have always been a freewheeling people, and it would be a pity if we can't conserve the freedom that we've always had," Stanley says. "In many ways, privacy is a conservative issue. It's about conserving the expectations of privacy that Americans have always enjoyed."

Powers, however, remains a supporter of the trend.

"Most individuals are appreciative of the surveillance as it does not seem to have an effect on their daily lives," Powers says. "Again, there is no expectation of privacy in public, so public surveillance is a good thing. ... It leads to solved cases and bringing the offenders to justice."

by Jared Newnam
April 8, 2010
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