Ferguson: Another case for public security cameras

Ferguson: Another case for public security cameras

Summary: The benefits are large and the privacy concerns are phony. Police should have cameras on them and the more cameras in public places, the better.

Image source: Wikipedia

Much of what passes for privacy concern strikes me as overwrought reaction to minor problems, and completely dismissive of the other side of the story. There's no better example than public security cameras and police-officer body-mounted cameras.

The disturbances in Ferguson, MO are a great example of the benefits of this technology. Consider this Wall Street Journal story on police body cameras, which the police in Ferguson were not wearing. It describes how the entire force in Rialto, CA is wearing them. "In the first year after the cameras' introduction, the use of force by officers declined 60%, and citizen complaints against police fell 88 percent."

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It's not hard to see why the numbers changed as they did. Police know that everything they do is on the record so they are more careful. Everyone else similarly knows that it's all on the record so those with frivolous complaints know they won't get anywhere. 

Police aren't everywhere at all times, but the law should be. That's why public security cameras serve some of the same benefits. I think most people would not be upset at a network of cameras in an airport terminal, but then there are the professional objectors: "They also raise the specter of technology racing ahead of the ability to harness it, running risks of invading privacy and mismanaging information, privacy advocates say."

My philosophy of these things begins with what I consider a truism: Nobody has a reasonable expectation of privacy out in public. If it would be legal for a police officer to stand nearby and watch you, then there's nothing wrong with a security camera taking your picture. I suppose the same applies to audio.

If you object to the idea of police out in public looking for legal problems to address then I don't know how to talk to you about this. I have a lot of problems with a lot of what police do, but obviously we need to have them. Why would a camera recording public events be any more objectionable when it protects the rights of the public? And just as with police, the public knowledge that there are cameras out there would and should discourage criminals. 

Recently I've begun to view cameras as a way to minimize the problems with eyewitness testimony. There is a good deal of research into the (un)reliability of eyewitness testimony. I have no doubt that it's possible to convince certain people that certain things happened when they did not. To the extent that video evidence is available, it makes reliance on eyewitnesses less necessary.

Clearly there are borderline cases such as the camera that sees into an open or unshaded window. This is a good example of how laws can and should be developed to govern the use of public surveillance data. I can certainly see forbidding the use of such information although, once again, if a police officer were on the street and could see into the open window and witness a crime, shouldn't that officer be able to respond? Maybe the answer is that if you want privacy, draw the curtains.

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The more important consideration is how to govern access to the data by police or other persons, and here's another case where technology can help. Both the video storage systems and the law should require that any viewing of recorded surveillance data be logged and reasons given. There should be clear and non-trivial penalties for abuse. Yes, you can imagine a police officer using surveillance footage to spy on an ex-girlfriend, but you can also imagine him stalking her personally. Both are wrong and it should actually be easier to detect the electronic abuse.

It would be at least reasonable and probably a good idea to limit the types of crimes or activities for which the footage may be used against a person or used for any purpose. I can also imagine an outside agency being entrusted with securing the data and given the job of controlling and logging access to it. Should the police have to give some reason to use video surveillance data for tracing a person's movements? I don't know, but we could talk about it. If such reasons could be given quickly by the police and those reasons protected against improper access, then we would have a better record of what happened.

Possibilities like these convince me that a well-designed public surveillance system will tend to protect the rights of the public, rather than diminish those rights. Just as the police body cameras convince both police and the public to act straight, public cameras remind everyone that they are in public and need to mind the rights and needs of others.

Don't give me the Big Brother argument. I'm talking about public places. 1984 had Big Brother watching you in your bedroom. There you have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Out in the park or outside a movie theater or in a subway station you don't. That's what makes it a "public" place.

Topics: Government, Government US, Privacy, Security

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  • Agreed

    You're not in private when you're in public, so there's no real right to complain there.

    The Boston Marathon shows us why cameras are a good idea: pull a stunt like that, and you will be caught.
    • Not completely true...

      The supreme court has indeed ruled that when we are outside private property that our rights to privacy are reduced. It has ruled against surveillance without a warrant. If I told you the police were going to place a GPS tag on your clothes, take photos of every personal interaction you make on the street, record your conversations, and place all of this in a file which will be kept forever, you would tell me that's unconstitutional. But because its being done by a camera and computer its OK? People need to stop being so terrified of crime that they are willing to spend astronomical amounts of money and give up all privacy outside the bedroom. Crime has always existed and always will. You know what else would have caught the marathon bomber? The FBI doing their job when they received crime tips, or the TSA following through on suspicious travel, or maybe just not allowing student VISAs from former soviet areas that are known for their extremely high levels of terrorism.
      • Sure, just follow up the crime leads

        It irritates me when someone states "we had all the information ahead of time for , all the authorities had to do was act on it".

        If I handed you 10 slips of paper with 10 different warnings of terrible events to come--all from equally reliable sources, but none 100%--could you tell me which was going to really be carried out? Of course not. Now instead of 10, what if there were 1,000, or 10,000 tips?

        After the bombs go off or the planes hit the building, it's a trivial exercise to follow the trail back and say "the data was there all along, someone should have acted!". But it would be foolish to think that every potential act of malfeasance can be detected and prevented by even the most dedicated enforcement agency.

        Security cameras may help security, but the potential for abuse is huge.
  • One could reasonably object

    To a policeman following you around ALL day ... and this is where the line should be clearly drawn.

    It would be feasible but not desirable to use facial recognition etc to track individuals between different cameras and record all the places visited and all the contacts made and this is also true of ANPR cameras mounted over moterways etc.

    Reasonable use is acceptable, automated spying wouldn't be.

    For example: hypothetically, if a couple are discretely making out in the park where ONLY the camera and its operator can see them are they actually breaking the law or should they be left alone in privacy?

    Does simply being outside of a private space make you automatically be in public ???
    • Does being outside of a private space make you automatically be in public?

      Larry Seltzer
    • You have probably been followed

      and not even known it. I used to work security catching shoplifters, the good security guys blend in and are rarely spotted.
  • You skipped over two minor problems

    One: in many places police already have dashcams that record their actions and there are over two thousand known instances where police in the US have deleted or prevented release of exculpatory evidence or potential evidence of abuse. Most cops have learned the tricks of how to "play the camera."

    Two: logs don't prevent abuse of records, that's been shown in everything from DMV records to the national child porn database, all of which have been abused and the logs not kept or conveniently ignore or lost. About the only times that data logs have been successfully used against abuse, it has been in conjunction with other investigations where they were looking for any levers to attack the person(s). Like getting Al Capone with tax fraud ...

    As long as the cameras are in the hands of authorities who can control access and stonewall any independent oversight, they won't do the job you are envisioning.
    terry flores
    • It will never be a perfect situation

      First, dash cameras are not enough because, as you said, cops have learned the tricks around the cameras. There are also other limitation because of the camera's fixed location and environmental conditions that could change the perspective. Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Moose recognizes this and wants to use body cameras. While everyone recognizes it is not a perfect solution, it is better than what they have now.

      And that goes to your #2, it is not a perfect solution. The "authorities" are human and will always be prone to human frailties including trying to cover up their own insolence. Policies can be created and enhanced as time goes on. If it is a good idea, then let's move forward because you don't want the perfect be the enemy of the good!
  • Symptoms

    the problem is, the use of cameras is another symptom of the problem.

    Society should be looking at itself and asking why we have these problems and how we can deal with them.

    Hint: weapons and surveillance aren't the solution.
    • So what is?

      Simply shooting down every proposal that comes along provides the illusion of moral clarity, but little else.
      John L. Ries
    • Education cannot solve everything...

      Just because there are societal problems, does not mean that you should not use the tools available in order to fix what you can. Yes, cameras are a band aid. But if the band aid stops the bleeding long enough to let the wounds heal and solve the problem, then let's use the band aid rather than hoping it gets better.
      • That was my point

        It is a band aid, it isn't fixing the problem in the slightest, using public cameras will not do much, people will wear hats or hoodies, they will then become illegal and so on and so forth.
  • Nonsense

    You do not forfeit your rights simply by leaving your domicile. Somebody needs a reality check, and needs to revisit the classic literature on this subject.

    Put down your Ayn Rand and actually pick up some Orwell.
    • What right?

      Orwell was Cold War propaganda so I'm not sure why I'd pick that up. What right are you talking about?
      Buster Friendly
      • Orwell was a satirist

        And the totalitarian socialism of Stalin was a highly appropriate target.
        John L. Ries
        • And?

          And your point? It was assigned in school as Cold War propaganda which is why anyone has heard of him. Otherwise it would have been forgotten as heavy handed silliness.
          Buster Friendly
          • You have actually read them, I take it

            John L. Ries
    • You might want to re-read your Orwell

      The surveillance described in the book took place in the home.
    • So what rights do you think you have?

      John L. Ries
    • If you actually read both...

      You would know that you got it backwards!