With the rapid advancements in technology, video surveillance platforms have become a widely used method to enhance security in both the public and private settings. These systems act as a force multiplier and provide constant surveillance in areas that are difficult or impractical to do so by other means. Surveillance of public areas has become an area of concern for privacy advocates. While these systems have so far successfully navigated legal challenges, abuse or misuse of the systems can jeopardize the ability to continue their use.
In the years following 9/11, a considerable investment has been made by federal, state, and local governments to increase security and protect the homeland. Areas that once were not given a second thought by law enforcement agencies are now considered “high value targets.” A key to maximizing law enforcement’s effectiveness to cope with the growing demand for service has been to increase their use of technology. Video surveillance systems are one way they have made investments that act as force multipliers and allow one operator to monitor multiple locations simultaneously, regardless of how remote or difficult to access the locations are.
This increased need for surveillance has coincided with advancements in technology that have made the necessary equipment to operate a video surveillance system more available, functional, and at a lower cost. Government entities are not the only organizations tapping into this emerging technology, many private businesses are also installing surveillance cameras to protect their assets.
It is difficult to argue with the benefits of employing these systems when you consider for a moment that it was a bank ATM camera that filmed Timothy McVeigh parking a Ryder truck outside Oklahoma City’s federal office building just before the April 1994 blast that killed 167 people. Had it not been for this critical evidence, the outcome of the investigation may have been very different. While there are certainly benefits to this enhanced level of safekeeping, some watchdog groups have cautioned that this security comes at a cost, but does the end result in fact justify the means.
At one time in the not so distant past it was uncommon to see video surveillance being used at all with the exception of large shopping malls, banks, and other private businesses where large amounts of money or high valued property was found. It simply was not cost effective for smaller businesses to make the investment. However, with increased availability and decreased cost it is not uncommon to see these systems in place almost anywhere, to include small businesses, private homes, and even religious centers. The sophistication of modern surveillance platforms provides a higher quality, easier to use system. Video surveillance has always been a useful tool to document an event for use at a later time as evidence against the perpetrator of some act, but modern systems are intuitive and will not only record an event they can be programmed to activate certain real time triggers to sound alarms, alert the owner, and/or the police.
Probably more than any other benefits, employing video surveillance security systems have filled an immense security void created by lacking human assets (Crean, 2002). Law enforcement agencies have never been able to be in all places at once so they employed staffing and patrol protocols that covered as much terrain as possible. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, along with several other high profile incidents occurring here and abroad, have highlighted the fact that current public safety initiatives were unsatisfactory. Law enforcement agencies had to find ways to do more with their current levels of staffing. One solution was to employ an elaborate array of video surveillance systems as force multipliers. Examples of U.S. cities where this strategy has been employed are Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C.
Chicago’s public safety managers have access to a collection of approximately 15,000 publicly and privately owned cameras. It is estimated that from their operations center officials can monitor 232 square miles of Chicago’s urban landscape. In New York’s Times Square, an area no larger than about half a square mile, as many as 200 surveillance cameras are active at all times. Washington D.C. Metro Police may have them all beat. During a tour of their command center with CBS News reporter Erin Moriarty, D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey was asked about what officers were monitoring on several of the screens in the center. Ramsey explained they were observing a group of protestors at one of the local public buildings. When asked how many cameras they currently had observing the activities of the group, Chief Ramsey commented that they had twelve of their own, but had access to a “practically unlimited” number as a result of being able to tap into images being fed by an array of privately and publically owned surveillance systems in the immediate vicinity (2010). These devices are accessible “on demand” via wireless routers and Internet connections. This on demand capability is not restricted to their command center. Field units, if equipped properly, also have the ability to remote access video surveillance images via a wireless connection. Technology has provided the ability to create this link to nearly any device capable of a Wi-Fi connection. Whether it be the laptop computer in an officer’s patrol car or the handheld PDA a precinct commander carries.
The San Diego Police Department has taken this technology one step further and automated it (2010). Instead of merely providing on demand access to the assortment of public and private video surveillance systems in the city, they automatically make that real time information available to officers who are operating their laptop equipped police cruiser in the vicinity of the system. This video information is also available on demand at the police dispatch center. The benefits to this set up with respects to enhancing officer safety are incredible. Imagine the lone police officer responding to a commercial building alarm in the middle of the night. As soon as the dispatch center receives the call they would be alerted that a video surveillance system is available. Before the responding officer puts their vehicle in drive to go to the call, the dispatch center is already studying the location for signs of trouble. When the officer is within a few blocks of the business he receives a notification on his computer that the building has video uplink capabilities. Prior to arriving he pulls to the curb and in just a few seconds is able to view the real time surveillance video to familiarize himself with the building’s layout, potential hazards, signs of an actual crime in progress, or perhaps live video of the suspects fleeing the scene in their vehicle and heading directly at him (Crean, 2002).
There is also a deterrent factor at play when overt video surveillance is in place. Cameras that are highly visible to the perpetrator can instill an enhanced fear of committing the crime because of the perceived likelihood of getting caught. If they do opt to commit the act, then having a properly monitored video system vastly increases the probability of being caught. Experts in this field of study have noted that even though the economy underwent a major recession in past years, the crime rates have not increased dramatically. In fact, some categories have made substantial decreases. This is notable as history tells us that when the economy is bad people become desperate and crime typically increases. More than one advocate of increased use of video surveillance has pointed out that as these systems became more prevalent the crime rates decreased (Osborn, 2006). Whether there is an actual link between the two remains to be seen, but the speculative evidence is very interesting.
Just as there are those who preach the benefits of employing video surveillance systems, there are certainly those who argue just as vehemently against its use. Probably the single greatest concern voiced is the invasion of privacy that goes along with this type of surveillance. Generally speaking, if the video monitoring is taking place anywhere that is open to the public then it does not constitute an invasion of privacy. As with most general rules, it is not always that simple. Watchdog organizations have argued that the use of covert cameras is an invasion of privacy since the cameras cannot be detected (The Constitution Project, 2007). In other words, if the public is not made aware they are being filmed than their privacy rights have been violated. Because of the proliferation of these systems, adequate notifications would be a nearly impossible goal to attain. Cities like Washington D.C. would probably need to put signs at the city limits on all major thoroughfares that security cameras are in use in the city and you are subject to being captured by one of these systems at all times. Certainly not very practical.
This begs the question, are these privacy concerns without basis? Consider for a moment the hypothetical situation presented by Angelo Pompano of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute:
On a typical day you wake up and walk out to your mailbox. A neighbor’s private security camera is trained on his driveway across the street and picks you up. Later, you drive to work and when you get to the light on the corner, a video camera is watching to see if you went through a red signal. You stop off at an ATM and you are taped. You go into the 7-Eleven-taped; pump gas- taped; get on the interstate and the traffic control cameras are focused on you. You get to work and the camera in the parking lot follows you into the building. Then you finally get you your desk and once more you are monitored (2010).
As Mr. Pompano points out, on the average day by 8:15 AM you have already been captured on video surveillance a dozen times. This is only the video we know about. This report will not touch on the clandestine surveillance being undertaken by the government at all times. I’m not saying I agree with Pompano’s opinion that this is a bad thing, but it is a reality.
A second concern that is frequently raised is the potential that video surveillance recording will be misused by the organization that captures them. Critics point out that it is difficult to control how the data from video surveillance because cameras are so easily attainable and the technology is so advanced that nearly anyone could manipulate it for unethical purposes. As with any technological advancement, there will be those that find ways to abuse it. Take for example a number of incidents highlighted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in their article “What’s Wrong With Public Video Surveillance? (2002). The general manager of a prominent Florida newspaper installed a hidden video camera in the employees’ bathroom under the guise of eliminating employee theft. The problem lies in the fact that when confronted with the cameras placement the manager could not document any thefts that had occurred. Or the management at Boston’s Sheraton Hotel covertly recording its employees changing clothes in a locker room on the pretext that it was investigating suspected drug use by its workers. Or the JC Penney security guard in Concord, California, that was caught showing off recordings during which he zoomed in on female customer’s breasts as they walked around the store. Needless to say, there is certainly room for abuse. However, the claim by those opposed to video surveillance that there is no way to control this type of abuse is unfounded. Each of the situations described here exposed the responsible person and/or their employing organization to both criminal and civil penalties. Laws to curb this type of infraction are already on the books and are capable of dealing with these infractions when discovered. Opponents might say that this type of illegal activity is difficult to detect so we should ban this type of surveillance. I would submit that this logic is akin to banning automobile use because driving under the influence is a difficult crime to detect and prevent. The argument simply does not make practical sense. When holes are found in the current laws that new technologies take advantage of, our legislatures have been quick to respond with new laws and practices.
Legislation has been presented at both state and federal levels that would restrict the use of public video surveillance, but many of these proposed changes have been stricken down. The courts and legislatures have made it clear that this type of surveillance in areas commonly open to the public and conducted for public safety purposes are neither illegal nor unconstitutional (USLegal, Inc., 2010). Where these systems do find trouble with the Constitution is when they find themselves pointed into a private dwelling or other place protected by the search and seizure doctrines of the Fourth Amendment. The United States Supreme Court has decided a number of privacy rights cases, but most critical to the concept of video surveillance is seen in Katz v. United States (1967). The court ruled there is no expectation of privacy in a public place. They confirmed the limits of Fourth Amendment protections against an illegal search did not apply in areas that a person lacked this expectation of privacy. In Katz the court ruled, “What a person knowingly exposes to the public,” is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection, but what he “seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected.” As such, a person in a public place does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy from video surveillance cameras.
As for the general public’s perception of the legitimacy of utilizing video surveillance technology to monitor their daily lives, most have recognized it as a necessary reduction in their privacy to combat today’s threat of violent crime and terrorism. Most accept the loss of some personal freedom for a feeling of security. Video surveillance by law enforcement agencies in public places is accepted by most as a minimally invasive measure implemented for the well being of the public. As highlighted in the Pompano article, “Although (citizens) may not be happy with the use of the video surveillance equipment to catch them as they go through a red light, few people will argue with the reasoning that video cameras promote safety (2010).” Most law enforcement agencies will tell you there is no replacement for having cops on the beat when it comes to fighting crime, but the police cannot be everywhere at all times. With the technology advancements made in video surveillance systems and capabilities now they don’t have to be.