Tuesday, January 13, 2009

You Are Being Watched!

The ACLU has launched an interesting website which tracks the spread of government funded video surveillance cameras. The ACLU notes, "an increasing number of American cities and towns are investing millions of taxpayer dollars in surveillance camera systems." Further, the ACLU states, "video surveillance technology will only grow more sophisticated. There will come a day when the cameras will be routinely linked with other technologies in attempt to instantly identify you and me via face recognition, RFIDs, or other technologies."

Although the conventional wisdom is that video surveillance cameras deters criminals, the ACLU notes, "that research demonstrates that video surveillance has no statistically significant effect on crime rates."

If video surveillance cameras do not noticeably deter crime are they worth the cost? Even if video cameras do not reduce crime do they play a role in helping police solve crimes after they occurred? Should local government instead invest resources into hiring more police officers?

Additionally, do you think video surveillance cameras harm privacy? Are they any policies that can mitigate potential harms caused by potential invasions of privacy?


ben b said...

A couple of thoughts, in no particular order:

-Assuming that CCTV monitoring is used in places that reasonable people would clearly agree are "public" areas, and the information is not accessible in a stored format without a warrant, then doesn't the "expectation of privacy" test satisfy civil rights concerns? How is being watched through a camera in public different than if a policeman were to observe your actions in person?

-countries that we generally consider to be pretty "good" in a normative sense use CCTV monitoring far more extensively than the US does, in particular Britain with its "Ring of Steel" around London

-What studies is the ACLU citing that go against the deterrence argument? 5 minutes on google found me http://www.palgrave-journals.com/sj/journal/v15/n3/abs/8340118a.html which seems to argue in favor of the common wisdom. Maybe the ACLU is right, maybe they aren't, I just hate being told that "studies show" without seeing those studies myself.

-The Tokyo subway targeted by the Aum Shinrikyo cult ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aum_Shinrikyo ) in 1995 was surveilled by CCTV, as were the locations of the London bombings in July '05. An adversary that doesn't aim to survive an attack will not be deterred by being recorded in the act.

In response to some of the explicitly posted questions:
Cost effectiveness of cameras (separate from the deterrence question)? Compared to the cost of salary, uniform, training, etc, I imagine a camera system is far cheaper (albeit probably less effective) than an actual policeman. Other roles for cameras than deterrence? Catching crimes in action has an obvious value in prosecution, identification, etc, especially when dealing with petty (by this I mean non-terrorist) crime. Defending against potential privacy harms of cameras? The major one that springs to mind has to do with control: control over who views the footage, how long it is stored, what kinds of warrants / cause are necessary, etc...all the due process concerns.

Ned said...

Excellent points Ben! I think the use of video surveillance cameras as investigative tools is often ignored and needs to be seen as a plus.

Also, I like your connection to the 'reasonable expectation of privacy' test established by the Supreme Court. In this sense, the use of video surveillance cameras should be considerable permissible provided the images captured are not stored and used for other purposes.

However, we must also keep in mind that when facial and gait recognition software tools are integrated into video surveillance systems that anonymity and not just privacy is impacted. In other words, I think most reasonable people would agree that while in public spaces there is little reasonable expectation of privacy and therefore video surveillance is permissible. However, I think these same people would agree that while in public they have a reasonable expectation of anonymity. Remember our readings highlighted anonymity as a degree of privacy that protected identification but not secrecy. When video surveillance cameras are integrated with facial and gait recognition software most reasonable people would likely conclude that anonymity would be degraded.

ben b said...

I hadn't thought too much about somatic recognition systems, but I'm not totally convinced that even advanced software combined with the basic camera would be that problematic.

Erosion of anonymity becomes a privacy harm when it causes personal identification; to me, this is connected to aggregation, attributing some data to another piece of information about the person, in this case specifically their name or other identity marker.

In order for facial- or gait-recognition (or bone-length-ratio or whatever new characteristic people figure out how to measure and tag in the future) to degrade anonymity in the way you've implied, wouldn't the government have to first build a data bank, analogous to fingerprint registration? In other words, sure, maybe the camera could recognize/tag you as a particular discrete entity, but it would not know your name or collect any other information about you on its own. And presumably, even the marking of you as a unique individual would then only be applied to either exonerate or build a case against you should you be charged with a crime.

I can imagine scenarios that are a little more extreme wherein the camera is integrated with software that runs a real-time check of footage for "suspicious" tags, maybe against a library of incidents from "loitering" to "robbery." The software could then alert an actual police officer, who could respond and evaluate in person. Aside from the substantial technical problems involved, I could see a civil liberties argument being raised here; but I am pretty comfortable with the idea of just cameras themselves.

In the case of crimes, police already run line-ups for witnesses to identify people, and do things like dust for fingerprints. I still think that a reasonable person would be unable to argue for a qualitative distinction between the camera and a human witness just hanging out on the street corner. If anything, the film testimony will be less subject to recall or witnessing bias, and therefore preferable.

galina.olmsted said...

This comment will probably get lost and buried in the crush of end of the semester comments, as well as the fact that I'm really reaching back here, but I just watched a movie called Look that had to do with some of the issues we discussed in class with regards to the issues surrounding CCTV monitoring. It's a fictional plot, but it's a movie made up entirely of what is supposed to footage from surveillance cameras. I think the director is trying to make the point that so much of our day to day is captured on video without our knowing it. Anyway, it's a cheap thrill, the NYT review is here:
Like they say, it's an unrealistic attempt at addressing these issues, but entertaining all the same.

Caitlin said...

I have started paying attention to the weekly emails I receive from ACLU. The irony is I am not sure how I got on ACLU's listserve. Nevertheless, I'm happy to be on it. One of the most recent emails that I have received from ACLU was titled "Is your Digital Privacy at Risk?" and invited me to take a quiz, which would evaluate how exposed I am/how likely I am to have my personal privacy/security jeopardized.

Turns out my level of risk is about as high as one's can get. I'm not surprised, though. In fact, I am sure most if not all of my friends that took this would rank as high if not higher on the risk spectrum. We all shop online, use cell phones regularly, check email hourly if not more frequently, post pictures and videos [whether or not we make them public is apparently a negligible detail], use facebook, etc. etc. etc. It seems, for my generation at least, being at high risk is essentially unavoidable unless you're okay with being a hermit. Business, social networking, etc. today demands that we are at high risk.

Anyone who is interested in taking the quiz can find it here: http://www.aclu.org/privacyquiz/