National Privacy Standards Needed for America’s “Cammed Nation”

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Washington, D.C. recently joined the club of cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, that conduct live monitoring of citizens through closed circuit television cameras (CCTV).

Hundreds of millions of dollars granted by the Department of Homeland Security to state and local governments has greatly expanded the use of CCTV in the U.S. since 2001. Yet there are no national standards to ensure that video surveillance programs are effective and do not trample our right to privacy and other civil liberties. In light of the questionable efficacy, and a myriad of privacy concerns associated with CCTV, the leadership within DHS needs to step up and take the lead in implementing appropriate use policies.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department has followed the national trend of greater surveillance in public areas. It has installed 73 CCTV surveillance cameras since August 2006, and as of November of 2007, has been live-monitoring 54 of them. And in 2008, it will use $630,000 of DHS grant money to replace 18 cameras in the downtown area. D.C. officers can rotate angles for a different view, zoom in on faces, and pick up license plates from cars several blocks away. Live monitoring has been widely criticized due to the large number of criminal and institutional abuses that have taken place. Widely noted abuse cases have sprung up both in the U.S. and around the world where officers have gathered evidence through CCTV ogle women, look into bedroom windows, watch couples in romantic situations, to target minorities, and monitor political activities – just to name a few.

The official in charge of the D.C. program claimed that the police department has policies to guard against misuse: “As long as you put protocols in place, which we have, we can be answerable to the community and the government.” However, the Policies and Procedures section of the D.C.P.D. Web site states, “Use of the CCTV system is event-driven. The system is not activated on a continuous basis, but is used only during major events or emergencies.” This policy doesn’t seem to match up with the fact that two to three officers have been live monitoring 10-15 cameras 40 hours a week for the last four months. It’s shocking that the tiny half-page of policies listed on the department’s Web site has not been updated to account for live monitoring considering the huge implications these policies have on personal privacy.

In comments submitted to a DHS workshop last December, CDT urged DHS to mandate that state and local governments follow specific privacy and civil liberties “best practices” if implementing a video surveillance system with federal money. If DHS were to create and mandate “best practices” for CCTV as CDT recommends, then Americans could feel assured that federal money is being spent on surveillance systems that are protective of our Constitutional rights. Furthermore, DHS leadership would save state and local governments time and money by providing a go-to national standard for CCTV implementation. In fact, several advocacy organizations have already created reasonable video surveillance “best practices,” which DHS is currently reviewing.

CDT has also urged DHS to require state and local governments to conduct an efficacy and privacy study to compare the potential risks to civil liberties against the potential benefits of a CCTV system – before any grant money is awarded.

Such preliminary analysis is important because multiple studies have brought the efficacy of CCTV into question. For instance, a 2003 review by the Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta, Canada
found empirical studies to be in agreement that video surveillance has little effect on violent crime, and only a small positive effect on property crime. A 2005 review for the British Home office reported that, “The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the analysis in this chapter is that CCTV is an ineffective tool if the aim is to reduce overall crime rates and make people feel safer.” To put this study in perspective, Britain is reported as having over 4 million CCTV cameras, one for every 14 people. London alone has 500,000 cameras in its affectionately named “Ring of Steel.” In spite of these studies, Police Chief Cathy Lanier said, “I’d love to have the whole city wired like London.” There have been multiple other studies that have stressed that video surveillance is not a panacea, but should be considered very carefully in light of ambiguous results from efficacy studies.

Given the rather dubious claims that CCTV reduces crime, and the potential breaches in privacy that come along with CCTV, do we really want a “Ring of Steel” in America? DHS should show that they care as much about protecting our rights as they do about protecting our country through leadership and oversight of video surveillance programs in state and local governments.

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