We’ve all seen it before. You walk into a store and see a sign saying “Smile! You’re on camera.” Fair enough, you’re in a store where the owner has a say in how they choose to protect and monitor their establishment and you know it’s occurring but how about when you don’t? This is something we all experience daily in the era of mass surveillance. Does it make us safer? The answer is no. Governments should not install a significant number of surveillance cameras in communities as a way of providing greater security to their citizens. At it’s core, surveillance cameras are an invasion of privacy, ineffective method of protecting citizens in areas that aren’t high crime and now more than ever, surveillance technology is subject to abuse and there are few regulations for their use.
One of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin said “Those who give up liberty for safety deserve neither.” Where do we draw the line when it comes to privacy versus safety? In February 2014, The Washington Post reported that new aerial video surveillance technologies are being deployed that can monitor virtually everything in an area the size of a small city (Jouranlist Resource). In reality we know little about government surveillance and how its attempts at security are actually making us more vulnerable than ever. The Notting Hill carnival in London is one of the biggest annual public events attracting crowds of up to 1 million people. Police at the event used facial recognition system to match faces in the crowd against databases of people they suspected would cause trouble, comparing them with images of people previously
arrested or under bail conditions in order to keep them away from the event (Guardian). Meanwhile, facial-recognition software is making security-camera images more valuable to law enforcement. Software can now automatically mine surveillance footage for information, such as a specific person’s face, and create a giant searchable database (CNN). Take New York’s Lower Manhattan Security Initiative for example. The $150 million dollar project uses feeds from both private and public security cameras which are monitored 24 hours a day by the NYPD. Using face and object-detection technology, the police can track cars and people moving through 1.7 square miles in lower Manhattan and even detect unattended packages (CNN). Al Shipp, who is the CEO of San Francisco-based 3VR, one of several companies that makes this type of facial-recognition technology. The company’s first investor was In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture-capital arm, which finds and funds promising security-related technology. 3VR works with federal and local law enforcement agencies, private companies and banks. This software can detect gender, approximate age and other demographic information. It zooms in on faces and can identify them based on things like the distance between their eyes and the shape of their nose and is stored in a database (CNN).
The greatest argument for security cameras is that they deter crime but in reality, surveillance cameras are virtually useless in areas that aren’t high crime. Consider the halo effect. The “halo effect” refers to the potential for greater security in areas outside the view of cameras which could be offset by the “displacement effect,” which pushes criminal activity to
other parts of the city. Cameras could also promote a false sense of security and lead citizens to take fewer precautions, or they could cause more crimes to be reported, and thus lead to a perceived increase in crime (ACLU). The variables are endless when it comes to crime. An increasing number of American cities are investing millions of taxpayer dollars in surveillance cameras and yet few are examining the costs and benefits of those investments, or creating mechanisms for measuring those costs and benefits over time. Measuring the success of public video surveillance systems is complex, because there are innumerable factors that can explain a rise or fall in crime rates. Showing an increase or decrease in reported crime in an area under surveillance does not take into account trends in crime and crime reporting, additional police in areas under surveillance, better lighting, and possible displacement of crime to other areas not under surveillance (ACLU). It can be inaccurate to extrapolate success from specific locations to general areas. Places like parking lots tend to produce better results than outdoor areas. In addition, other factors such as increased police presence and better lighting in areas under surveillance make it difficult to conclude which intervention is most effective (ACLU). Researchers consistently report that efforts to reduce or deter crime are complex as are the causes of crime and that pointing to one method of reducing crime is an erroneous path (TENNESSEE). In Malmo, Sweden, CCTV along with improved street lighting reduced property crime but did not have an effect on violent crime (International crime justice review).
Security cameras are subject to abuse and as of today, the regulation and implementation standards concerning their use are poor. They do little to protect us and have the potential to do great harm and this isn’t new information. In 1997, 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 (ACLU). In 2018, we’re living a society more technologically advanced than we could have ever imagined 20 years ago and now we don’t have to imagine what someone like that could do with a citywide surveillance system at their fingertips and thats our new reality. An investigation by the Detroit Free Press 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 (ACLU). 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 (ACLU). Security cameras are not inherently used for good nor do they make people safer, in fact they can be used to target certain people under the guise of community safety.
A societal consensus about how cameras should be used is important and 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. It’s idealistic to think the installment of surveillance cameras by governments would make citizens safer. The reality is that too many variables and not enough regulations exist making it a largely ineffective way for governments to protect their citizens safety as well as privacy.