Thursday, December 30, 2004

Dallas cops share surveillance tapes with private businesses

More evidence the proliferation of police cameras isn't really about traffic enforcement: Dallas PD is installing surveillance cameras in the Deep Ellum area, the Austin Statesman reported, not for any traffic purpose but "to provide real-time video images [and] to provide a history of what happened."

Disturbingly, this is a public-private venture, and DPD has announced that area "
businesses and police will share the footage via the Internet." That's spooky.
A private surveillance company donated equipment to get the project off the ground.

Unfortunately, an amendment by Texas state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, to homeland security legislation in 2003 made secret all information about where police conduct video surveillance and what they do with the data. So legally, Dallas PD can give the video to whomever they want, thanks to Sen. Wentworth, and the public could never know.

That's a bad idea, though. Police shouldn't share surveillance data with private entities, much less transmit that data blithely over the Internet, but that's what happening in Dallas.
Once private businesses get the tapes, they can do what they want with them. It really doesn't seem like Chief Kunkle has thought the whole thing through.

In other words, if young women celebrating Mardi Gras in Deep Ellum decide to flash the crowd, the videotape could be sold for use on Girls Gone Wild. They might even get some good shots. After all, the donor company touts its system's zoom and tracking capabilities. A British study found that one out of ten women were targeted by male surveillance camera operators for voyeuristic purposes, and steamy excerpts from British police surveillance tapes have wound up in the hands of B filmmakers, who profiteered off of them. Grits mentioned several documented examples of abuses regarding police surveillance footage in this post.

Camera surveillance by municipal police in Texas is growing rapidly, with no evidence to show that it has improved traffic safety or reduced crime. Austin already has hundreds of surveillance cameras around town, with no plans to use them for traffic enforcement or anything but police surveillance. Houston's city council just voted to install traffic enforcement cameras at 50 intersections. (Unlike in Houston, the police union in San Antonio has fought off the idea so far.) Now Dallas police are installing new surveillance cameras and sharing surveillance data with private businesses.

The widespread proliferation of surveillance cameras is only one leg of the surveillance stool -- Sen. Wentworth's amendment making all information about surveillance cameras secret laid the groundwork for that proliferation, and if the Texas Department of Public Safety and the House Defense Affairs Committee are successful, this legislative session Texas could require all drivers and ID card holders to give up biometric "facial recognition" measurements that would let the state identify individuals from video by name.

Recent Grits coverage dealt with these issues extensively. See "Biometrics Blues," Stanzas One, Two and Three, What Do Fallujah and Texas Have in Common?, Why would they want all ten fingerprints?, Bill Filed to Kill Houston Red Light Cameras, Whither Texas on Biometrics After Intelligence Bill?, The Biometrics of Face Veils, and No Smiling.


Adam said...

I think what you have to say is completely valid and these are issues that need to be taken into account whenever surveilance is installed anywhere. However, I live in Dallas and the Deep Ellum area is suffering from a severe crime wave. What used to be a very popular part of town for live music venues, night clubs, and urban loft living is being taken over by gang related senseless violence. There have been several cases where people were riding in their vehicles through the area with their windows down and they were punched unconscious by someone on the street through their car window. People are shot for no reason after coming out of night clubs, not to mention all the mugging that goes on. I am as liberal as they get and I think that because of the situation in Deep Ellum that this is necessary to combat the crime that is happening there.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I understand that manipulating people's fear of crime is how they sell this, and obviously in your case it's worked. But does that justify sharing the surveillance data with private businsesses? Would you still be comfortable if police had your biometric facial recognition data to track you by name on the video? I'm reminded of Ben Franklin's commment that those who would give up liberty for a little safety deserve neither.

Ironically, cameras simply won't stop the behavior you describe. For starters, they only catch actions after the fact, they dont' prevent them. Drunks who might punch somebody in a passing car aren't thinking about any camera, they're drunks.

To actually improve safety, I'd rather pay an extra cop or two to walk a beat in Deep Ellum than pay them to watch us on video monitors.