The Shrinking Rationale For Government Surveillance Camera Systems

Yesterday I wrote about how the spread of cameras throughout our public lives is irrevocably changing our privacy in public spaces, as well as society expectations around video surveillance—with people increasingly surprised when an unusual incident that takes place in public is not captured on video.

Does this mean that I or the ACLU have thrown in the towel when it comes to opposing public video surveillance?

No.

The trend toward Little Brother surveillance has one additional very significant implication: given such surveillance, there is actually less reason for police departments to build centralized, government-run camera systems. We can get 99% of the security benefits of surveillance cameras from privately owned, distributed cameras—and with a much smaller portion of the privacy downside.

When a freak event such as a terrorist attack or more common crime such as a mugging takes place, the police will be able to collect video footage from the private citizens and businesses that are nearby. This is essentially what happened after the Boston Marathon bombing. The more a place is high-profile, well-trafficked, and likely to be the target of a terrorist attack, the more likely a place is to be highly photographed by numerous private cameras.

In New Orleans, the police have actually taken things one step further: they are building a database of privately run cameras.

What do we think of that idea?

Well, any system for the mandatory reporting or registration of private cameras would be constitutionally troubling, and a system in which the police can actually monitor private cameras in real time would be not an improvement on centralized surveillance systems, but a super-charged version thereof. But assuming that (as in New Orleans) it is entirely voluntary for citizens to tell the police about their cameras, and the police are not actually plugging in to the private cameras, I see no problem with it.

Of course, the possibility always exists that the police will abuse this capability for illegitimate uses such as politicized "intelligence" gathering—but the effort involved plus the involvement of private citizens will provide more insulation against abuse than centralized government-run camera systems. Reliance on private cameras probably represents the appropriate long-term balance between increasingly omnipresent video technology and concerns over privacy.

The benefits of centralized and live access to large-scale video systems doesn't balance out the privacy risks (not to mention the monetary costs, although we should expect those will fall sharply over time). As with any technology, one can imagine scenarios where such systems save the day—but it is even easier to imagine scenarios where such a technology is abused and in fact such scenarios don't require any imagination whatsoever as experience strongly suggests abuses are inevitable.

It seems to me there are two main arguments for centralized camera networks that a supporter of such networks might make. The first is ease of access to video footage by the police, who would be spared the inconvenience of having to collect private footage. But we impose many inconveniences on the authorities for the sake of limiting their power and protecting our privacy—from search warrants to expensive and time-consuming jury trials. The costs of centralized surveillance are too great to trade away for mere convenience.

The other argument is that the police might use a centralized network for live monitoring, in the hopes of detecting and preventing crimes before they occur. The problem with this was well summed up by Cato's Julian Sanchez:

Terror attacks are (thankfully) so rare and varied that any system with the slightest chance of detecting a real one would necessarily yield a vast, paralyzing number of false positives.

Crimes other than terrorism are more common but the "predictors" for such crimes may be even more broad, and lead to the same ocean of false positives. Part of the reason this is true is the asymmetry between past and future: it's far harder to predict something than to reconstruct how it happened after the fact. Yet the ease of the latter seduces us into thinking we can do the former.

Unfortunately we are seeing the construction of centralized government camera systems in Chicago, California and elsewhere. Every day there is less need for the authorities to go down that road.

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reloquent

This article addresses a few of the questions I raised when I shared the previous article on this subject. But there are many more questions to be resolved. Here is my original list of questions.

* When and where is it acceptable for people and businesses to record others?
* Under what circumstances can government agencies demand that recordings be turned over to them?
* Do we need to establish rules regarding retention of security camera recordings for private entities as well as for governmental agencies?
* What would happen if private recordings were aggregated together as opposed to being isolated?
* Should individuals be able to demand that at least some of the things they do in public not be subject to video recording?
* Should we create camera-free zones, much like we create city parks?

Anonymous

You know, sorry not to say this more politely but I already have, over and over, to ACLU people whenever it has come up.

I've decided that ACLU's hard-headedness is pure arrogance and that it has forfeited any expectation it should have for polite dialogue.

Forget the potential for abuse of cameras for intelligence gathering, and turn your naive, sheltered eyes on actual, real, rampant and chronic abuses of these cameras happening all around your privileged, under-qualified out of touch tushes.

The number one abuse by government of footage from these cameras is that when evidence contained on them incriminates a government authority -- federal, state or local -- or anyone those authorities want to protect, the people violated by those authorities who seek the footage to get justice for themselves can't get their g.d. hands on them. They are erased, they are off limits, they are lost, they are having technical difficulties, they are too political hot for the lowly judge to order them produced, they are .... fill in the blanks, there are a thousand excuses.

When government wants to install cameras, they insist at public meetings that citizens consider the fact that these cameras will protect the public from corrupt government officials too, bad cops, bad government employees, because they will be recorded too.

ACLU reps, who often attend such hearings to speak against the introduction of cameras in response to this claim sit there silently, baby-faced, green, barefoot and incredibly annoying for their lack of knowledge and lack of experience in the real world. ACLU reps NEVER point this out.

Get some real world people into your organization.

Anonymous

produced, they are .... fill in the blanks, there are a thousand excuses.

When government wants to install cameras, they insist at public meetings that citizens consider the fact that these cameras will protect the public from corrupt government officials too, bad cops, bad government employees, because they will be recorded too.

ACLU reps, who often attend such hearings to speak against the introduction of cameras in response to this claim sit there silently, baby-faced, green, barefoot and incredibly annoying for their lack of knowledge and lack of experience in the real world. ACLU reps NEVER point this out.

Get some real world people into your organization.

and by the way, why don't you stop inviting comments when you have no intention of publishing them. Hypocrits

Anonymous

IDK, maybe it's because I grew up in orphanages and was adopted, but I've never in my life thought that I have ANY privacy or rights.
You don't even want to KNOW how they treat you when they can search through their BEADY little minds and work out that 'orphans have no money, can afford no legal representation, WELL...that means I can treat them like a pile of camel dung AND get away with it.'

If I'd never read any books by Dean Koontz I never would have known that you can live in an orphanage and STILL become successful and I'd probably be dead now.
I never would have made it through the adult years if I hadn't met the few people I did who DON'T take advantage of people and then still think they're great in spite of it.

I'm still working through convincing myself that I have any rights at all. I tell myself I do, but I never can convince this one part of me that keeps insisting it's all a lie.
I get that memory in my head again where some guys drove past the orphanage, threw garbage (from their finished fast food orders) on the lawn and said such charming things as "God hates orphans" and "bye-bye you trash."
I even had that idea reinforced in a courtroom when the defendants' attorney tried to use my background to convince the court that I'm "not a credible witness." No. I only SAW it happen to me, how can anything so solid be convincing to anyone. O_o
Fortunately, the judge told the defense to find a different way to do it b/c he wasn't going to let them use that one (even though it was perfectly legal, I guess, to do so.)

This may sound odd but I had no idea, until I started researching what ACLU actually does, that I had all these rights. I thought I'd had my rights revoked b/c of what happened to me as a child.

I wish I would have felt the urge to find out about ACLU 15 years ago.

Anonymous

If people are going to sit around acting like they're 4 years old and calling other people names via modem, then at least do one thing for me: LEARN HOW TO SPELL THE COTTON-PICKIN WORD BEFORE YOU STICK THE LABEL ON THE PERSON.
If you can't spell it, IMO you don't get to say it.
I'm so utterly freakin SICK of online bullies, who will say things on a keyboard but never to your face.
I have a friend who names both a place and time to meet the person (not that I think he SHOULD do it; he's from New York City and just DOES do it,) so they can discuss it further, but not even ONE of the people he's asked to do it has put in an appearance. He goes to the place he named and waits to see if the person shows up.
I can't stand being called names by total strangers on a daily basis, but it's like 200 times WORSE to be called 'stoopid' by someone who doesn't even know how to spell the word, so who's the STUPID one NOW?
It's happening so frequently THESE days that I also can't stand seeing OTHER people be called names. I'm hypersensitive to name-calling since I was born with a handicap (that's what they called it until I was an adult) and everybody in the world made fun of me, called me disgusting names.

Anonymous

^Chill, dog

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