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What's Wrong With Public Video Surveillance?

Video cameras, or closed-circuit television (CCTV), are becoming a more and more widespread feature of American life. Fears of terrorism and the availability of ever-cheaper cameras have accelerated the trend even more. The use of sophisticated systems by police and other public security officials is particularly troubling in a democratic society. In Washington, for example, the police are in the process of setting up a centralized surveillance center where officers can view video from schools, neighborhoods, Metro stations, and prominent buildings around the city.

Although the ACLU has no objection to cameras at specific, high-profile public places that are potential terrorist targets, such as the U.S. Capitol, the impulse to blanket our public spaces and streets with video surveillance is a bad idea. Here are four reasons why:

  1. Video surveillance has not been proven effective

    The implicit justification for the recent push to increase video surveillance is the terrorist attacks of September 11. But it is far from clear how the proliferation of video cameras through public spaces in America would stop a plot like the attack on the World Trade Center. Even supporters of CCTV like the Washington police do not argue that it would.

    The real reason cameras are deployed is to reduce much pettier crimes, such as auto break-ins. But it has not even been demonstrated that they can do that. In Britain, where cameras have been extensively deployed in public places, sociologists studying the issue have found that they have not reduced crime. "Once the crime and offence figures were adjusted to take account of the general downward trend in crimes and offences," criminologists found in one study, "reductions were noted in certain categories but there was no evidence to suggest that the cameras had reduced crime overall in the city centre."

    In addition, U.S. government experts on security technology, noting that "monitoring video screens is both boring and mesmerizing," have found in experiments that "after only 20 minutes of watching and evaluating monitor screens, the attention of most individuals has degenerated to well below acceptable levels."

  2. CCTV is susceptible to abuse

    One problem with creating such a powerful surveillance system is that experience tells us it will inevitably be abused. There are five ways that surveillance-camera systems are likely to be misused:

    Criminal abuse

    Surveillance systems present law enforcement "bad apples" with a tempting opportunity for criminal misuse. In 1997, for example, a top-ranking police official in Washington, DC was caught using police databases to gather information on patrons of a gay club. By looking up the license plate numbers of cars parked at the club and researching the backgrounds of the vehicles' owners, he tried to blackmail patrons who were married. Imagine what someone like that could do with a citywide spy-camera system.

    Institutional abuse

    Sometimes, bad policies are set at the top, and an entire law enforcement agency is turned toward abusive ends. That is especially prone to happen in periods of social turmoil and intense conflict over government policies. During the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, for example, the FBI as well as many individual police departments around the nation conducted illegal operations to spy upon and harass political activists who were challenging racial segregation and the Vietnam War. This concern is especially justified since we may be entering a similar period of conflict today.

    Abuse for personal purposes

    Powerful surveillance tools also create temptations to abuse them for personal purposes. An investigation by the Detroit Free Press, for example, showed that a database available to Michigan law enforcement was used by officers to help their friends or themselves stalk women, threaten motorists after traffic altercations, and track estranged spouses.

    Discriminatory targeting

    Video camera systems are operated by humans who bring to the job all their existing prejudices and biases. In Great Britain, camera operators have been found to focus disproportionately on people of color. According to a sociological study of how the systems were operated, "Black people were between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population."


    Experts studying how the camera systems in Britain are operated have also found that the mostly male (and probably bored) operators frequently use the cameras to voyeuristically spy on women. Fully one in 10 women were targeted for entirely voyeuristic reasons, the researchers found.

  3. The lack of limits or controls on cameras use

    Advanced surveillance systems such as CCTV need to be subject to checks and balances. Because the technology has evolved so quickly, however, checks and balances to prevent the kinds of abuses outlined above don't exist. Two elements in particular are missing:

    A consensus on limits for the capability of public CCTV systems.

    Unfortunately, history has shown that surveillance technologies put in place for one purpose inevitably expand into other uses. And with video technology likely to continue advancing, the lack of any clear boundaries for what CCTV systems should be able to do poses a significant danger.

    For example, a recent ACLU visit to the Washington police department's new central video surveillance center showed that the system currently consists largely of long-range cameras focused on traffic and public buildings that are not suitable for identifying individuals. But the infrastructure for a far more sophisticated and integrated system is being established. Now that the surveillance facility has been put in place, the department will be in a position to increase the quality of its technology and the number of its cameras -- and will inevitably be tempted or pressured to do so. Do we want the authorities installing high-resolution cameras that can read a pamphlet from a mile away? Cameras equipped to detect wavelengths outside the visible spectrum, allowing night vision or see-through vision? Cameras equipped with facial recognition, like those already installed in airports and even on the streets of Tampa, Florida?

    As long as there is no clear consensus about where we draw the line on surveillance to protect American values, public CCTV is in danger of evolving into a surveillance monster.

    Legally enforceable rules for the operation of such systems.

    A societal consensus about how cameras should be used is important, but in the end we are a nation of laws and rights that have their root in law. While the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution offers some protection against video searches conducted by the police, there are currently no general, legally enforceable rules to limit privacy invasions and protect against abuse of CCTV systems. Rules are needed to establish a clear public understanding of such issues as whether video signals are recorded, under what conditions, and how long are they retained; what the criteria are for access to archived video by other government agencies, or by the public; how the rules would be verified and enforced; and what punishments would apply to violators.

  4. Video surveillance will have a chilling effect on public life

    The growing presence of public cameras will bring subtle but profound changes to the character of our public spaces. When citizens are being watched by the authorities -- or aware they might be watched at any time -- they are more self-conscious and less free-wheeling. As syndicated columnist Jacob Sullum has pointed out, "knowing that you are being watched by armed government agents tends to put a damper on things. You don't want to offend them or otherwise call attention to yourself." Eventually, he warns, "people may learn to be careful about the books and periodicals they read in public, avoiding titles that might alarm unseen observers. They may also put more thought into how they dress, lest they look like terrorists, gang members, druggies or hookers." Indeed, the studies of cameras in Britain found that people deemed to be "out of time and place" with the surroundings were subjected to prolonged surveillance.

The bottom line: a lack of proportion between benefits and risks

Like any intrusive technology, the benefits of deploying public video cameras must be balanced against the costs and dangers. This technology (a) has the potential change the core experience of going out in public in America because of its chilling effect on citizens, (b) carries very real dangers of abuse and "mission creep," and (c) would not significantly protect us against terrorism. Given that, its benefits -- preventing at most a few street crimes, and probably none -- are disproportionately small.

Copyright © 2002 American Civil Liberties Union
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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