Monday, March 14, 2005

Safer with camera surveillance, or just more exposed?

Security mavens tout camera surveillance as a preventive safety measure, but they didn't protect anyone in the recent courthouse killings in Atlanta. It turns out that surveillance cameras supposedly monitored by two security guards captured the suspect overpowering a sheriff's deputy and taking her gun, but "no one in the control room noticed the assault and sent help."

That's lamentable, if understandable. If your job was to stare at several dozen video screens all day, every day, when by definition nothing of import typically happens from moment to moment, you'd have a hard time staying focused, too. That doesn't mean the security personnel were especially sub-par; they're probably pretty typical. In Oakland recently a jail inmate hung himself on video, but jailers watching the monitors didn't notice until it was too late.
More evidence that the upsides of camera surveillance are overhyped. These two incidents highlight why surveillance cameras rarely if ever prevent crime, or allow law enforcement to react to crime in a timely manner -- they're typically not rigorously monitored and only allow reaction after the fact.

But they can be abused. The downsides to proliferating camera surveillance are just starting to become apparent. The New York Times reported recently about a
case in Tennessee that should give every parent pause:

ACCORDING TO the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Nashville, members of a girls' basketball team visiting Livingston Middle School in Tennessee spotted the camera right away. "It was high up in a corner, near a ceiling tile in the visitors' locker room," said the girls' lawyer, Mark Chalos. "It seemed to look out over the changing area."

The girls were wary at first, Chalos said. But ultimately didn't believe the camera would be recording them, so they continued changing their clothes. Later, one girl mentioned the camera to her coach, who confronted Livingston's principal. The coach was told that the camera was not positioned to observe dressing and undressing, the court papers contend. But after parents pressed the point, a district official reviewed the video and reported that it showed the girls in "bras and panties."

That was enough to enrage the parents. But what they learned as they questioned school authorities outraged them even more. Logs from the server holding the school's video show that the images were available, unsecured, over the Internet, Chalos said, and indicate several instances of access by unknown outsiders.

If that had occurred in Texas, the girls' coach could never have found out the team was being watched by voyeurs while they undressed, because of a bad law passed by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, in 2003 making all information about surveillance cameras -- where they are, who has access, what's done with the information, etc. -- a secret. If girls' locker rooms are being monitored with cameras in Texas, Wentworth's law lets school officials conceal that information from the parents.

This wasn't an isolated abuse incident, but really just the tip of the iceberg. At the University of Nevada at Reno, hidden cameras were used to spy on a whistleblower who sued the school, according to the 3-12-05 Reno Gazette-Journal:

University of Nevada, Reno officials acknowledge that a network of about 80 “homeland security” surveillance cameras is operating throughout the campus, and UNR faculty members and state lawmakers say new policies and perhaps laws may be needed to prevent the system from becoming a “big brother” surveillance system.

Those concerns have been triggered in part because a homeland security camera in the College of Agriculture was redirected to monitor the doorways of a UNR associate professor who is suing the university and has filed federal animal abuse complaints against UNR.

The camera was focused on the doorways of Associate Professor Hussein S. Hussein after private investigators hired by Hussein found a university police camera hidden in a smoke detector outside the teacher’s office and police removed the device.

Secrecy surrounding government surveillance opens the doors wide for abuse. In Scotland recently, employees discovered a secret camera hidden in the smoke detector in an elevator and cried "foul." But they actually have laws to protect them. According to the Scotsman:

Using secret filming could contravene the Human Rights Act, which guarantees a right to privacy, and the Data Protection Act.

And footage from a hidden camera cannot be used as evidence in prosecuting a crime.

By contrast, neither U.S. nor Texas law affords such protections, even for government cameras. Thanks to Wentworth's Folly, in Texas, government cameras can be placed anywhere, for any reason, and no one can do anything about it, or even know if they're being watched, whether in the girls locker room, the elevator, or anywhere else.

Don't you feel safer?


John said...

Um...Does it really matter if you're in the elevator?

The other examples (the locker room, the whistleblower) disturb me, but that one is laughable.

I mean, c'mon. When you're in public, it can be reasonably assumed that, hey...You're being watched.

scarynetworkguy said...

Then why was the camera hidden? If there was nothing wrong with it and it was to prevent crime it should be as big and obvious as possible. The point is not the specific case but the erosion of the concept that the gov should not be spying on it's people

Filksinger said...

Cameras in public areas are an invasion of privacy, too. Each individual one is a small invasion, but the more prevalent they come, the greater the cumulative invasion.

When in public, people see what you do. This is considered by most to mean you have no privacy in public, but a close examination shows that this is not the case. Normally, you experience a very considerable degree of privacy in your public actions by the simple fact that nobody has more than a small part of the information.

One person knows where you work. One knows that you are carpooling with someone. One knows what you bought at the grocery store. One knows where you bought gas, and saw the person in the car. One knows that you parked your car by a park. Another knows you were parked there an hour later. Each person knows a little bit.

But only a person who followed you knows that you are having an affair with your boss's girlfriend. And a person who secretly follows you is undeniably violating your privacy (rightly or wrongly).

Each individual hidden camera violates your privacy, just a bit. Have enough hidden cameras, and whoever has the cameras (or can obtain the video) can follow a person around, invisibly, after the fact. Carried to extremes, this is the same as having a time-travelling invisible PI to whom one can say, "Follow that guy and see what he did last Thursday."

So, hidden cameras, in private locations, are, individually, severe violations of privacy, but hidden cameras in public locations are, individually, small invasions, too.

Anonymous said...

I think that these security cameras are causing more harm than good, and are setting a dangerous precedent for the increased use of borderline and blatant violations of the public's privacy. I think it is also somewhat ironic that lady Justice is blindfolded...

Anonymous said...

I have an outdoor PT dome camera right outside my garage.. I caught two youn guys approach my daughters car in the middle of the night and keyed it... all these are recorded and was accepted by authorities as evidence and key material in finding and identifying these vandals...Question... Have I violated the privacy of these criminals????

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:00 - That's your own property, the question is what the government may do in public spaces.

No one disputes cameras focused on high-value assets can help protect them, they just do little good in public spaces, which your garage is not. See the difference?

Besides, your car still got keyed, and if they'd been smart enough to wear a hat or a hoodie (i.e., if they'd know the camera was there, which is the case when they're public cameras out on the street), they couldn't have been identified. Most camera footage quality isn't good enough to ID people from, particularly at night, as evidenced by the footage from the Governor's mansion fire.