Use of Government Surveillance Cameras Expands in California Without Regulations or Public Debate, Says ACLU Report

August 20, 2007 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO — California cities are moving quickly to install video surveillance cameras on public streets and plazas without regulations, with little or no public debate, and without an evaluation of their effectiveness, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released today.

Even though 37 cities have some type of video surveillance program and 10 cities are considering expansive programs, no jurisdiction in California has conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the surveillance cameras’ effectiveness, according to a public records survey conducted by the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of Southern California and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. The ACLU sent Public Records Act requests to a total of 131 jurisdictions statewide and received responses from 119 cities.

“In the last two years, the federal Department of Homeland Security has made more than $1.4 billion available to cities for anti-terrorism projects,” said Maya Harris, Executive Director of the ACLU of Northern California. “This trend, along with rising homicide rates and aggressive marketing by security companies, has led many cities to approve and install surveillance camera systems without guidelines to protect civil liberties and with little or no public debate. We strongly urge local governments to pause and consider whether this is the best way to make our cities safer.”

The 25-page report, Under the Watchful Eye, looks at the threat video surveillance cameras pose to privacy and free speech, examines law enforcement justifications for video surveillance programs, and reviews the findings from an ACLU public records survey.

According to the ACLU report, surveillance camera programs do not significantly reduce crime in city centers. Mark Schlosberg, Police Practices Policy Director of the ACLU of Northern California and co-author of the report said, “The use of surveillance cameras, unfortunately, comes at the expense of proven crime reduction measures such as better lighting, foot patrols, and community policing. In this sense, throwing money at video surveillance actually detracts from law enforcement’s efforts to reduce crime.”

In a July 13 editorial, the New York Times raised similar concerns about the New York City police commissioner’s $90 million initiative to install 3,000 cameras in lower Manhattan: “The troubling thing about New York’s move, though, is that the only thing it’s guaranteed to diminish is privacy. There’s little proof that the money spent to equip and operate the system will do more for public safety than, say, hiring more cops.”

In the last few years, reports of abuses involving surveillance cameras have also surfaced – from recording protestors in New York City to a San Francisco police officer who faced disciplinary action for using surveillance cameras at the airport to ogle women.

Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director of the ACLU of Northern California and report co-author, raises another serious concern: “The threat of widespread government surveillance only multiplies when cameras are combined with other new technologies such as radio frequency identification tags, face and eye scans, and automated identification software. In this light, video surveillance cameras provide a critical pillar for an emerging government surveillance infrastructure.”

To protect civil liberties, the ACLU California affiliates make the following recommendations:

  • Given the surveillance cameras’ limited usefulness and the potential threat they pose to civil liberties, local governments should stop deploying surveillance cameras in public spaces.
  • Local governments considering camera programs should fully evaluate other crime reduction measures before spending limited public safety dollars on video surveillance systems.
  • Local governments should fully assess any proposed system’s effectiveness and impact and establish a process for open public debate.
  • Any city with a video surveillance system already in place should conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the system’s effectiveness and impact on privacy. The city should make public the results of the evaluation and hold public hearings on the future of surveillance programs and possible alternative crime reduction measures.

The ACLU of Northern California, ACLU of Southern California, and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties released the report today.

Click here for the ACLU report Under the Watchful Eye and a special website on video surveillance.

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