Surveillance cameras: an eye for an eye?

In big cities, crime cameras and public surveillance systems are more prevalent than ever. Are they an anti-crime aid, or a Big Brother-sized violation of personal privacy?

On an early June night in 2007, Roberto Duran, 14, was walking with friends in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood when a case of mistaken identity cut his life short.

A car -- a Chevrolet Celebrity, police later confirmed -- pulled up to the group and stopped abruptly. Out of it stepped a young man, who extended a handgun and shot Duran once. Then the car took off.

A witness, sitting in his own car, immediately gave chase. He kept with it for several blocks, striking its bumper with his, before finally forcing it to crash. The two men inside fled the scene on foot. For now, the suspects remained at large, and worse, unidentified.

But a nearby surveillance camera was watching. The camera, operated by the Chicago Public Schools, captured their escape. With that footage and other evidence, police were able to identify the men and charge them with Duran's murder. It was the first use of video surveillance to track down a suspected killer, just four years after the city initiated its crime camera program.

Today, crime cameras are more prevalent than ever, and law-enforcement officials praise public surveillance systems as a crime-fighting tool. "There's such value in video evidence," said Mike Fergus, project manager of the technology center for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "And it's everywhere."

But the swift adoption of crime cameras nationwide has been accompanied by ongoing concerns over their potential to violate personal privacy. Enticed by government grants after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, some police departments rushed to set up camera systems, said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel for The Constitution Project, which published a 2006 report on cameras and privacy.

"Many communities began installing systems without first developing any privacy policies or rules for the use of these systems," she said. "The law is trying to catch up with technology."

The birth of a network

In the United States, most early surveillance cameras used to be privately owned, by banks and other businesses. But after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security and other grant-making groups provided funds to municipalities for a wide range of security tools -- including cameras. Now, municipalities continue to expand their surveillance systems by partnering with the private sector.

While the majority of Chicago's cameras are publicly owned, the city also taps into a network of cameras owned by businesses, religious organizations, non-profits and others, said Jonathan Lewin, the city's managing deputy director of Public Safety Information Technology. In a similar effort, Philadelphia last year initiated its SafeCam program, which encourages private camera owners to voluntarily register their video security systems with the city.

Camera-related crime prevention happens when people decide not to break the law in view of a surveillance system, or when cameras help catch criminals who would have gone on to commit more crimes, said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center. A three-year study by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center concluded that surveillance cameras can be a cost-effective tool for combating crime.

In Chicago and Baltimore, cameras helped to reduce crime in certain areas and justified their costs, according to the report. But Washington, D.C. saw no statistically-significant impact on crime following the implementation of a camera system -- though its program was restrictive and had fewer and less-noticeable cameras than in other places, La Vigne said.

Chicago, which has documented about 6,000 camera-related arrests since 2006, targets neighborhoods for close video monitoring based on crime patterns. On the first night of a mission in the city's Gold Coast neighborhood, which had a recent spate of armed robberies, a surveillance camera captured an image of a woman entering a building to use an ATM -- and a man following her inside. The camera was still watching when the man fled moments later. Before the woman had a chance to call 911, officers were on the scene. They arrested the armed robber, and another suspect, nearby.

Some crimes, like the Gold Coast robbery, are solved almost instantly. In other cases, police track down suspects using clues from surveillance videos, such as an image of a vehicle involved in a hit-and-run. When the department launched its surveillance program in 2003, Lewin said, every camera-related arrest was highly publicized. "Now it's been so routine it's like saying, 'Did the police radio help solve this crime?'" he said, adding that feedback from police and the public has shown, anecdotally, that cameras improve safety and reduce the fear of crime.

Following last year's riots in Vancouver after the Canucks lost the Stanely Cup to Boston, police used thousands of hours of video -- shot by cameras in businesses, on cell phones and elsewhere -- to identify about 15,000 individual criminal acts. Police launched a Web site featuring suspect photos and video images and sought the public's help in solving the crimes. "It's just a tremendous tool for figuring out what actually happened and who is responsible for what happened," Fergus said. "That's the power of video."

At what cost, success?

Despite public safety successes, some remain concerned about the privacy implications surrounding near-constant public video surveillance. Camera systems could be violating citizens' constitutionally-protected right to privacy when they are used to identify non-lawbreakers, experts said. "This has to do with people's ability to act anonymously," La Vigne said.

Similarly, cameras should only focus on public areas, rather than private space, Bradford Franklin said. "If you have a camera you set up to monitor City Hall, that camera should not be able to pan, tilt and zoom, so it can look into the windows of the apartment building next door," she said. (Police departments can physically block private spaces from camera view, for instance not allowing the camera to zoom in on the backyard of a residence.)

Free speech is another touchy topic. Some wonder if cameras might violate -- or at least chill -- first-amendment rights. Will citizens feel free to take part in demonstrations or distribute political literature when they know cameras are tracking their every move? With camera technology that can zoom in on individual faces, law enforcement officials can target people they feel are acting suspiciously, making anonymity nearly impossible. "It's almost like it's akin to an unreasonable search," La Vigne said. (Currently, it's unconstitutional for surveillance cameras to have audio recording.)

And to avoid violating the principle of equal application of the law, police departments should monitor camera use to assure they're not unduly focusing on individuals based on race, religion or sexual orientation, La Vigne said. "There's some concern that cameras, if they're not used in a way that's equal, could end up being discriminatory," she said.

To protect privacy and assuage concerns, police departments should only install camera systems designed to target a specific crime problem, Bradford Franklin said. The right way: install cameras in a high-crime area to capture footage that would assist police in apprehending and prosecuting criminals. The wrong way: install cameras in a jurisdiction with limited crime providing only a vague explanation of the criminal activity targeted. "What need is that serving to justify intrusion on people's privacy?" Bradford Franklin said.

Fergus said police departments should share with the public information about how cameras are being installed, policies related to camera use, who has access to video, how long it's stored and what safeguards are being put in place to protect privacy. "It's always a good idea to try to engage the community as much as you can," he said. "Law enforcement agencies are realizing they need the public support to maintain these things and they're being more transparent with their policies."

When a surveillance system is in the works, experts said, jurisdictions should be open with citizens about where, why and how cameras will be deployed. "Most jurisdictions, if they're doing this right, will have a period of time where they'll explain why they're investing in the technology," La Vigne said. This might include public hearings on the plan, she said, but at the bare minimum it should be a written policy that's circulated throughout the community. Cities have been unequal, La Vigne said, in letting citizens know how officers can and can't use the system, how footage is stored and other details.

Informing the public

Chicago made its crime camera policies public in its online directives system (type POD, which stands for police observation device, into the search bar). Middletown, N.Y., which has had a camera system for a few years, also outlines its surveillance policy online. "If they're going to be operating security camera systems in the public streets," Fergus said, "it's really to the community's benefit to be as transparent as possible."

It's often appropriate to let citizens know where, in general, surveillance cameras are located, Bradford Franklin said. While it might be necessary to keep the exact location hidden, she said, the general vicinity of cameras should be public knowledge. Some cities, such as Baltimore, make crime camera locations obvious by mounting flashing lights on the systems. Others, like Washington, D.C., make their locations available online.

Once video is taken, Bradford Franklin said, it's important to ensure the footage is used only for law enforcement purposes. "You want to have regulations that govern how the data can be used once it's in the government's hands," she said. "They shouldn't just be able to track through and look for anybody without that kind of predicate."

As officers review videos, Bradford Franklin said, they'll identify portions they believe are relevant to criminal investigations. "The rest of the footage should be deleted," she said. How long footage can be stored is typically mandated by state and local laws, Fergus said. The data should only be kept for a reasonable period, Bradford Franklin said, based on normal experience of the jurisdiction. The time frame could be a week, 30 days or more. But, she said, "it shouldn't be five years."

Security techniques, such as digital watermarks, can alert officials if leaks are made to unauthorized people, Bradford Franklin said. For accountability, she added, departments should audit the surveillance system regularly to ensure its effectiveness and proper use -- and to make sure there are no abuses of privacy rules.

Crime cameras are here to stay -- in part because that's what the public expects, experts said. "They're already everywhere within the private sector," Fergus said. "You can't go into a shopping mall and not expect to be on camera almost the entire time you're in there. That will happen with central business districts, restaurant areas. Whether they're operating by the private sector or the city governments, they can be valuable."

Photo: Joe Chacko/Flickr

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