Photography by Whitney Curtis
When you are a camera, nobody can see who you are; You get to see them. You get to decide what they see. —From “Dear Digital Camera” by Stephen Burt
In a time of hot debate over drones and bodycams, security cameras are about as sexy as peering into a porn star’s window and finding her knitting.
Cameras are already operating all over St. Louis—in alleys and neighborhoods, on bridges and the riverfront, in stores, warehouses, businesses, schools, and hospitals. There are cameras that record license plates, thermal cameras that sense body heat, infrared cameras that see at night, facial recognition cameras that can flag people from a database.
Jonathan Finn, author of Capturing the Criminal Image: From Mug Shot to Surveillance Society, calls surveillance “the dominant metaphor of our society.” With our selfies and social media, drones and nanny-cams and People of Walmart, “we are always on watch. Always on the lookout for something, anything that’s an aberration from the norm.” Cameras have become an antidote to anonymity, an almost comforting, almost parental oversight of what’s otherwise a fast urban blur.
And when it comes to crime-fighting, they’re accepted without question as the next best thing.
In 2001, the global mass surveillance industry was worth so little, there’s no number out there. By 2013, it was worth more than $13 billion, and a ReportsnReports market analysis forecasts $39 billion by 2020. The technology and our cultural fascination with it have grown apace with our fear, since 9/11, of terrorism and violence. We’re used to trading privacy for convenience, and we’re downright eager to trade it for safety.
Assured of popular support, Mayor Francis Slay and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department are building a real-time center that will “systematically start federating private cameras,” letting law enforcement use their video feeds to track suspects and fugitives and share data with other agencies.
Yet there’s still no public policy consensus about how all this surveillance should be conducted, how long data should be archived, who should monitor it, what ethics are involved, and how our laws must bend to accommodate the new reality.
And though cameras rank right up there with fingerprints and DNA in helping solve crimes, studies don’t show much evidence that they reduce crime.
The fact that so many cameras are already up and running with neither proof nor consensus tells us just how eager people are for security cameras—and how much they trust their efficacy. Last October the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri issued a report, “Caught in the Web of Mass Surveillance,” warning of the dangers of this kind of aggregated surveillance: The cameras aren’t terribly effective; they eat public money; monitors can be biased; data can be sold or reused in ways impossible to predict; new technologies violate civil liberties; unchecked power rests with the police; mixing public and private cameras makes accountability and transparency unattainable.
Yet for all its outrage, the ACLU knew better than to expect anybody to turn off cameras. The report just begged for a little more oversight and transparency—and even that caused many folks with security cameras to roll their eyes.
Have privacy activists just not caught up to technology’s new reality?
Or are we not thinking ahead?
+ Real-Time Intel
Capt. Angela Coonce, commander of intelligence for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, steps into the big raw space down the hall from her office and draws a deep breath, inhaling the smell of fresh-cut wood and the promise of, at long last, efficiency. This will be the new Real-Time Crime Center, formerly dubbed the Real-Time Intelligence Center but shrewdly renamed to emphasize crime-fighting.
Phase one is mainly for demo; the mayor’s looking for funding for the rest of the project. But the long wall, freshly painted a drab taupe, will eventually be a wall of camera monitors, fed by private cameras all over the city. And the tiers on the opposite side are built out for platform seating, with the back row the chief’s bridge.
SLMPD crime analysts will use the room to determine crime trends and hotspots. Neighborhood associations’ tech-savvy volunteers will be invited in for training, and federal agents and analysts will stream in and out. “Our plan is to have people from different agencies here all the time,” Coonce says, “so when there’s something happening…”
The room will become command central.
Relying this hard on technology is called intelligence-led policing. Critics see it as nationalization—and, to some degree, militarization—of the police force. But from Coonce’s perspective, it’s just working smart. “Before, we’d have to send a request to the Downtown Partnership and wait 24 to 48 hours to get their video. Having a snapshot of what’s happening in real time, as the officers are responding, helps not only with solvability but also officer safety.”
From her perspective, the genius of this center is precisely what worries the ACLU: that it’s “truly a private-public partnership,” able to give multiple agencies instant access, but with private companies paying for—and controlling—most of the cameras and their data storage.
“Chicago has about 20,000 cameras, and the city owns only 3,000,” she notes. “What they’ve done that we want to do is exploit what’s already out there. Businesses like BJC, Peabody Coal, Bank of America already have systems.” The police won’t be monitoring all those feeds live, but a 911 call will automatically pull up 15 seconds of video. “If there’s a robbery, assault, or homicide, we can click on cameras and push that information out in real time to the investigators.”
The police keep video for six months; they’re waiting for the state to set a standard policy, with any luck in the next session. If someone moves a camera, it’s tagged with that person’s name, Coonce says. “We wanted those audit trails in place for the privacy concerns, to be able to see who is zooming in on people.”
Cameras are best at preventing crimes of opportunity, she says, not impulsive violence (such as the domestic homicide that recently took place in full view of multiple cameras at Tucker and Chouteau). But they do make any crime they capture easier to solve and prosecute. Just this morning, her team used video to ID a bank robber. A few weeks earlier, they found the solitary shooter in the Drury Inn homicide.
I ask for comparative data showing how cameras reduce crime. “It’s hard to quantify,” she says. “There are ebbs and flows. We did a five-month snapshot analysis last year of Grand and Osage, getting as close as we could to what we’d identified as a hotspot.” Calls for service originating within 200 feet of the camera dropped by 42 percent between the spring and summer of 2013 and the same months in 2014. The biggest decreases involved calls about suspicious persons (26 fewer) and general disturbance calls (36 fewer). “We can’t say for certain that the camera caused the drop, but it’s those little pieces of data I took to the chief.”
Later, she sends a study that evaluated surveillance systems in Baltimore, Chicago, and D.C. About four months after Baltimore saturated its downtown with live-monitored cameras, crime dropped by about 30 incidents per month. But in other Baltimore neighborhoods, the effects on crime were mixed. After Chicago installed an extensive camera system, crime spiked in one location, then dropped; in another location, crime didn’t change. In D.C., the cameras had no obvious effect. The report emphasized that cities should invest in live monitoring.
Our center will be staffed around the clock and capable of live monitoring, but “we can't watch 22,000 cameras a day,” Coonce says. Instead, the system will be triggered by 911 calls.
This won’t replace officers on the ground, she adds. (The SLMPD has proposed spending $8 million to add 160 officers over the next two years.) “But as technology moves forward, we have to move forward also.”
Watching the Watchers
While Coonce was fighting to strengthen SLMPD intel, John Chasnoff, former program director of the St. Louis ACLU office, was trying to figure out just how much surveillance was already up and running throughout St. Louis.
He’s an unintimidating sort, with a gentle voice, wire-rimmed glasses, and a ball cap over a graying ponytail. But he’s as persistent as a schnauzer. He first worried about cameras when two residents of the 21st Ward protested outside Alderman Antonio French’s office and promptly had their photos posted on Facebook. That was in the spring of 2012. Chasnoff made a few Sunshine Law requests, trying to find out whether those cameras were public or private.
What he found was that the city was full of cameras, and the line between public and private had been erased.
“I couldn’t go to the city, even, and say, ‘Tell me about all your cameras,’” he says. “They had no idea. The cameras they were monitoring belonged to the Locust Business District. And the guy who answered our Sunshine request didn’t know the Port Authority had cameras; didn’t know there were 120 alley cams to catch people disposing of trash improperly.”
Then Chasnoff saw the PowerPoint, prepared by the SLMPD for Mayor Slay, proposing a real-time intel center that would rely on private camera feeds. “To me, that’s a real dangerous model,” Chasnoff says, “to build an infrastructure for other people’s cameras.”
He worried about the biases that come into play when human beings monitor live cameras. (A 1999 study by the Centre for Criminological Research, in England, found that monitors disproportionately focused on people who were young, black, or both. A 2004 study conducted in Oslo found a pattern of targeting people who looked “scruffy.” A 2011 study in Criminal Justice and Behavior found that monitoring was heavily biased toward minorities, males, and youth.)
Chasnoff also worried that “the law has not caught up with the realities of this technology.” The old standard of privacy was measured by the human body: If you were in public, where strangers could see and hear you, you couldn’t very well expect your movements to be private. But today’s camera networks “can record a whispered conversation; track individuals as they go to the doctor, engage in political activities, or attend their house of worship; even zoom in on someone’s diary while they are writing on a park bench,” Chasnoff notes.
Meanwhile, the FBI’s Next Generation Identification database is already collecting the DNA profiles, iris scans, palm prints, voice profiles, scars, and tattoos of millions of Americans. Video of people’s movements could be integrated with that data or shared with other agencies. Chasnoff asked SLMPD Chief Sam Dotson whether he planned to coordinate this real-time center with the St. Louis Fusion Center, which pulls together scores of federal and state agencies for homeland security. (In 2012, a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee pointed out instance after instance in which fusion centers had violated civil liberties.) “He said there were no plans and then finished by saying, ‘I am thinking about asking the county fusion center to move into our building when we get the real-time intelligence center.’”
But the biggest surprise, Chasnoff says, was that the effectiveness of intelligence centers remains unproven: “Boston had a 10 percent reduction in crime after their center opened in 2010; Houston had a 15 percent reduction in violent crime in the three years after theirs opened in 2008. With no intelligence center in place, St. Louis had comparable or better numbers: a 9.25 percent reduction in crime for 2010 and a 15.6 percent reduction in violent crime for that year alone.”
Jeff Rainford returns my calls in January, just after announcing his coming resignation as the mayor’s chief of staff. “The feedback we’re getting from the people of St. Louis is, ‘We want you to do more to keep us safe,’” he says. “This is all an initiative of the mayor, being carried out by public safety and the police department. We are in favor of cameras for public safety, for crime prevention.”
I ask what gave the mayor’s office confidence that cameras would prevent crime.
“We partnered with [the University of Missouri–St. Louis] and asked them to advise us on cameras,” Rainford says. “The answer comes back that they work if they are monitored live—which can be by human beings or by sophisticated software that is monitored by human beings. What UMSL has told us is that surveillance cameras do in fact have a significant impact on crime when they are monitored live, both deterrence and solving. I’m convinced it will make the city safer.” Rainford calls the UMSL report “the strongest basis for my thinking” and urges me to talk to its main author, UMSL criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld.
Actually, I already have.
Rosenfeld and his colleagues studied the 21st Ward’s closed-circuit TV cameras. “There was a reduction in crime for a relatively short period of time,” Rosenfeld says, “and in a few months we found crime levels returning to baseline. That’s not unlike other studies about the impact of CCTV cameras on crime. They sometimes have a relatively immediate and short-term effect. But over time, especially if people began to perceive that the footage was not regularly monitored…”
The key is indeed live monitoring, he says. “But my own view is that cameras work best when they are accompanied by regular police patrols. People draw a connection between the presence of cameras and the presence of police.”
He thinks the Real-Time Crime Center will be a good idea “to the degree that the police are successful in collecting and centralizing images from all over the city.” But he’s not sure that it will reduce crime. “It certainly can make the investigation of crimes more efficient,” he says, adding, “I do have reservations. The question always has to be ‘What are the additional benefits of compiling, centralizing, and disseminating up and down the chain of authority all these kinds of information?’ The benefit has to outweigh the risks and be worth the effort. I don’t know that I’m fully convinced that it is.”
I call another academic, Neil Richards, an internationally recognized privacy expert who’s on Washington University’s law faculty. Born in Liverpool, he’s well accustomed to surveillance cameras, and Oxford University Press just published his first book, Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age. “CCTV is interesting,” he says. “CCTV does not really deter crime. It can move street crime around. Violent crimes, people don’t think about cameras. And they don’t deter terrorism.” The case inevitably cited is the Boston Marathon. Yes, Richards says, cameras confirmed the Tsarnaev brothers’ presence there, “but all the CCTV cameras in the world would not have stopped those guys—and in the end, they got found by a guy walking out his door and saying, ‘There’s a bloodstain on my boat.’”
From the glass walls of Downtown STL’s conference room, I notice a nondescript little brown bird perched on the wing of the American eagle atop the Old Post Office. The statue’s a replica of “Peace, Vigilance, and the American Eagle,” which, it occurs to me, is exactly what we’re talking about—the vigilance needed to make the streets peaceful, and how to balance that vigilance with liberty.
Missy Kelley, chief operating officer, and Doug Woodruff, president and CEO, bring out a big map of downtown’s security cameras. There’s no central registry, so they walked the streets and asked who had cameras. The board’s clustered with so many red and blue dots, it looks like an epidemiologist’s trying to track the common cold. The 100 red dots are cameras that Downtown STL actively monitors. The blue dots are private cameras, but not all of them, Woodruff says: “There are cameras people don’t want you to see.”
I ask whether a common code of ethics seemed to be emerging.
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” Kelley says. “We hand-select the people that monitor, and there are very strict rules.” (I later learn the minimum requirements: Monitors must be high-school graduates, 18 or older, with no criminal record.) “The police department trains them,” she continues, “and we have a manual.” May I see it? “I don’t know that it’s something we can turn over to you.” (When I ask Coonce, she says that a new manual’s being prepared but isn’t yet approved for release.)
How long is video archived? “Well, we don’t have a policy,” Woodruff says. “I think that’s an issue with the police department more than with us.”
Does it concern him that all those private cameras are exempt from public accountability yet will be networked into a public system? “That’s not our issue,” he says, “other than the benefit of having 700 cameras downtown and we ought to be able to access them.”
Could we show readers that cool map? After all, to work as deterrents, cameras have to be visible. “Flashing lights, police logo—that’s what we are encouraging even private businesses to go toward,” Coonce told me.
“No,” says Kelley, “we can’t let you have the map.”
Walking back to my car, I stop on the sidewalk below one of the cameras and ask passersby, “Do you know where the downtown security cameras are?”
“Gosh, no. I’ve lived here all my life, so I thought I could help you,” says a nice young man in a suit.
“No, but I’m lost myself,” says another man, slightly harried, with a briefcase.
“Haven’t a clue,” a woman says with a shrug.
“No, ma’am,” says the hot-dog vendor on that corner. “I have been here 11 years, but I do not know where that is.”
Next I stop by the office of the Locust Business District. Its cameras went up more than five years ago. “You have to be careful,” treasurer Barry Adelstein tells me, “because we don’t necessarily want folks to know where all the cameras are. We think people knowing we have them is enough.”
He gets regular crime-comparison reports from a supplemental security firm, The City’s Finest, staffed by current and retired police officers. But when I call his liaison there, I’m told “those reports are not public information.”
My next stop, the Central West End Neighborhood Security Initiative, looks like an outdoors shop in the Pacific Northwest, with pale hardwood floors and a row of black mountain bikes hanging on one wall. Executive director Jim Whyte is an affable guy, eager to show privacy advocates that the cameras aren’t violating any civil liberties.
A former police officer, Whyte points out that “cameras do prevent crime,” in the sense that they remove a particular criminal from the street for a time. They won’t stop somebody from robbing a bank. But when the Bank of America at Euclid and Lindell got robbed, various cameras showed which way the robber ran and captured him getting into a car—all in real time, with helicopters circling overhead.
The CWE cameras have helped in more than 20 incidents since mid-2013, Whyte says, often sorting out exactly who did what. The CWE’s security-camera policy states that “signage, which is still in development, will be posted to disclose this activity.” But the group still hasn’t put signs up notifying people of particular camera locations—they worry that it might produce a false sense of security, plus it’s “an aesthetic issue,” Whyte says.
“I don’t get the whole privacy argument,” he adds. “It’s something that is perpetuated by the media.”
Partnering with Washington University Medical Center, the NSI has $465,000 to expand its system; soon the office will control more than 80 high-definition cameras.
“It’s very expensive,” Whyte says, “but there’s no better feeling than to come in here after some innocent person has been victimized and be able to review the footage, call the police, and say, ‘We have them.’”
The Perception of Safety
At every neighborhood or business office I visited, someone spoke fervently about cameras “giving people confidence” or “creating the perception of safety.”
But there are ways that perception can backfire.
First, there’s the danger of overconfidence. Reasonable, law-abiding people park near cameras thinking they’ll be somehow safer there—maybe they can even leave their laptop in the car. But impulsive, aggressive criminals don’t even register the cameras’ presence.
Second, there’s the lessening of community cooperation and vigilance. “It takes a lot of work to be vigilant about crime and come down to court to testify,” says St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, “and sometimes, in more affluent neighborhoods, the feeling is, we spent money on cameras, so we don’t have to do that anymore.”
Then there’s what’s called the CSI effect: Jurors think that if something wasn’t caught on camera, it didn’t happen.
Fourth, “you can see a video that only shows you part of what’s happening and assume you know what’s happening,” notes Joyce. “A couple years ago, on New Year’s Eve, an officer was at a gas station at I-55 and Arsenal. Two guys took video and were narrating, saying things like, ‘Wow, he’s really punching him.’ You could only see the officer from the waist up, because a car was in the way. He was hitting with his baton, and it was a disturbing video.
“We talked to people at the scene and found out this individual had lunged at the police officer and had him in a wrestling hold around his legs. If an officer gets knocked over, he can lose control of his gun. So he was hitting—on the meaty part of the thigh, where you don’t break any bones, just as he’d been trained to do.
“Video’s just one piece of the puzzle,” Joyce concludes. “You have to be really analytical when you review it, but it’s powerful.” She mentions a recent murder-for-hire case that was solved because there was video: “Those three people would have murdered a victim of domestic violence, and we would never have found them.”
The City’s Finest
After hearing that both Locust and the CWE hire The City’s Finest, I visit its office—founder Charles Betts’ old apartment in Forest Park Southeast. He was a beat cop down here before rising to homicide detective, he says, and after an injury forced him to retire, he founded TCF, offering supplemental security patrols. Now he’s adding high-tech surveillance.
The office is immaculately clean—with fragrant candles, a pale wood floor, and a leather sofa—and freezing cold, for the new computers’ sake. One room holds a bank of eight large screens. Betts shows me how the software allows him to move cameras and pan, tilt, zoom (PTZ) remotely. “The thermal camera on the perimeter says there’s a person, the fixed camera sees them, and the PTZ follows to get a close-up, and the monitor can then take control and zoom in on facial features. He can warn the person through an Internet Protocol microphone—there are two loudspeakers at the site.”
The entire system can be controlled from a cellphone, Betts says. Business owners “can even watch employees to make sure they’re doing a good job. And we can monitor remotely at night instead of putting a police officer in a dangerous area alone.
“All our camera systems are designed to feed into the SLMPD system,” continues Betts. “We are going to be giving them information all the time. But we are not subject to the Sunshine Law. I can do whatever I want, because I’m private. The private sector has unlimited resources. You just say, ‘Hey, I want 30 monitors in this room, and I want to store video for a year. You could do that.” (He doesn’t, as a rule; after 60 days, it gets recorded over.)
Betts doesn’t worry about invading privacy, because “when we put a camera in, if there’s anything we feel is a privacy concern, we put a mask over it. The computer has drawn a virtual line around that window and blocked it out. The mask is controlled by the administrators of the system.”
Facing the Future
A Starbucks cup clamped in his teeth, Joe Spiess digs out his security card so he can swipe his way into Blue Line Security Solutions’ conference room. “We need facial recognition right here,” he jokes, rescuing the sloshing cup before it spills.
Spiess retired as a major with the SLMPD; now he’s the chief operating officer of Blue Line, promoting a facial recognition system whose users enter photographs of people they want recognized. Called First Line, the software can stop thieves, sexual predators, employees turned violent, abusive spouses, baby kidnappers, or corporate spies, Spiess tells me. The system just went online at St. Mary’s High School, one of the first in the nation to use facial recognition. And the city’s 32 circuit judges have allowed it to be set up in the downtown courthouse. It’s working, Spiess says. “A father made a threat, so his photo was put into the system, and when he showed up for the termination hearing, he was searched twice and escorted to the judge’s chambers.”
First Line differs from the myriad patent-pending facial recognition systems, because it uses small, user-created databases. All those shoplifter photos pinned to cork in Walmart back rooms? They’d go into a First Line database, and a security alert would come up if that shoplifter returned. He or she then could be greeted—and tracked—by a courteous security agent, not just waved in by a cheerful retiree.
I wonder aloud: Can somebody say, “No, you can’t take my picture,” if he or she hasn’t been charged yet? “I don’t think so,” says Blue Line CEO Tom Sawyer, who worked 21 years for the SLMPD, “but it really wouldn’t matter, because this is all videotaped anyway on 5.0-megapixel cameras. You’d just pull off a still.”
That’s the trick of facial recognition—short of a Mardi Gras mask, there’s little anyone can do to prevent his or her image from being collected. And it’s another reason that access to these databases needs to be tightly controlled, Spiess says. “If I want to mess with him”—he gestures to Sawyer—“I can change him from green to red in 1.2 seconds and tell everybody he’s a pedophile.”
What if the camera gets it wrong all by itself and misidentifies Sawyer as a pedophile? “Most facial recognition uses 160 to 180 data points” measuring a face’s features, Spiess says. First Line uses 380, and it reads them in a tenth of a second. Granted, even the best facial recognition systems can be fooled by hoodies or sunglasses, aging or plastic surgery or cryptofashion’s tribal paint makeup. “But we dressed my wife up in a burqa,” Spiess confides, “and it got her, because it was all in her eyes.”
Sawyer steps into the hall, and a black speck on the wall about 18 feet away identifies him, claiming 99 percent accuracy. “You can extract the video to see what else he’s wearing,” Spiess says. “You can snip it and mail it to anybody.”
I leave Blue Line with a slight tingle down my spine, realizing that I’m still on their cameras and someday could be tracked all the way to my next meeting—with a privacy rights activist—and our whispered conversation could be overheard, taped, and sent God knows where.
I used to comfort myself with the thought that there was too much information being gathered for anyone to sift through anyway. Then I read about software programmed to automatically detect anomalies in a camera feed. About computers that train themselves, using an annotated database, to recognize what’s happening in a photograph. About private companies that are now building license plate photo databases available to all buyers.
People assure me video’s never going to be kept long, because it costs too much to store—but storage costs are in freefall. John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering and public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, estimates that by 2020 the cost to store a year’s worth of around-the-clock high-res video will be $6 per camera.
“Why would a mall throw away their footage?” asks Frank Ahearn, an author and privacy consultant. “There’s too much money in data.” It can be resold for marketing purposes, national security purposes, private purposes. “Let’s say Frank Ahearn was the guy sitting behind the buttons. I’d contact all process servers and tell them I can locate all their people for them and charge them $100 a head. You have a grudge against somebody, you find the bar and say, ‘He’s there now.’”
The Chinese government has installed more than 20 million surveillance cameras, along with advanced video analytics and facial recognition software, to prevent crime, track criminals, and—according to human rights groups—monitor political dissidents. In 2012, a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Gansu province told a New York Times reporter, “ There are video cameras all over our monastery, and their only purpose is to make us feel fear.” The Times also reported that a fund run by Bain Capital had bought the video surveillance division of a Chinese company that produces infrared “anti-riot” cameras for Chinese police—and has set up an emergency command center in Tibet “for the maintenance of social stability.”
This is what privacy activists mean when they talk about “function drift” or “mission creep.” It doesn’t take a science-fiction writer to come up with a scenario in which we’ve played into a future authoritarian government’s hands. And it’s perfectly possible that some organizations will save data and, a decade from now, it will be analyzed in ways that we can’t possibly foresee.
A Careful Policy
The director of protective services at Washington University School of Medicine, John Ursch, has been quietly overseeing an extensive, tightly controlled CCTV system for many years. Its cameras are passive, not live-monitored, so they’re not catching criminals in the act. Is the system worth it? “Well,” Ursch says, “I’m prejudiced. I’d say so. Could I give you a cost-benefit analysis that proves this on paper? Probably not.”
The med school “would be crime-free if people were actually afraid of doing things in front of a camera,” he says. “It isn’t enough of a deterrent. But in a lot of theft situations, without the video, we’d be pretty much stymied. And there’s a soft value to it that I would say is invaluable. It builds confidence.”
Will the medical school’s camera system be merged into the SLMPD’s real-time center? “If it’s up to me, no,” Ursch says firmly. “We will always be good partners with the police. We can burn images and have the video ready by the time a patrol car gets here.” The police want his cameras to be part of the network, I remark. “Yeah, I know they do,” he responds. “They want it all. But quite frankly, I don’t think they can effectively manage it all. I would be very hesitant about throwing in and saying we are all part of this single integrated system.” Ursch is a retired Army intelligence officer. “There’s part of me—with my background in law enforcement and intelligence—I’m not comfortable with that level of aggregation and single point of control.”
Surveillance tech brings with it the ultimate irony: Just at the point when we don’t trust anybody, we’ve got to trust a whole lot of people to do this right.
Chasnoff thinks that there should be a record of who logs into a camera network, that a third party should collect the data, and that police should need a warrant to obtain it. “You can’t build a system where it’s entirely at the discretion of the police department to show restraint,” he says.
“If I were in charge?” says Ahearn, the tough-talking privacy consultant, “everything would be incident-based. You can’t consolidate it. Get a subpoena for a copy of the CCTV footage. What happened to the idea that there had to be probable cause?”
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, an independent nonprofit in D.C., wants legislation “that provides for penalties and public oversight.” The United Kingdom has appointed a surveillance camera commissioner and directed users to regularly reassess their camera systems: Are they effective? What’s their privacy impact? Is there adequate signage? Is the images’ integrity safeguarded? The European Forum for Urban Security says equipment should be proportional to the problem it is intended to address, and citizens should receive regular reports about costs, the areas being surveyed, and what the results are.
“Surveillance is dangerous for two reasons,” says Richards, the law prof. “When we’re talking about surveillance of our intellectual activities or social behavior, it inclines us to the boring, the bland, and the mainstream. And two, it changes the power balance between the watcher and the watched.”
Sure, there’s talk of “sousveillance,” in which citizens turn the tables and conduct surveillance of those in power. There’s even a new app for Android smartphones, Alibi, that records your audio, video, and location data—for an hour. But for most of us, protection will have to come from the law. And when it comes to the newest forms of surveillance, Richards says,“legally, we have a mess. The rule for public surveillance is that things in public aren’t private. It’s not very deeply theorized! And we haven’t thought about the consequences” of today’s surveillance capabilities.
“We have to ask what privacy does for us, what values it serves,” he continues. “Protecting political defenses, protecting individual eccentricity, promoting equality. You have to weigh those values against the prevention of crime. They are both important. That’s the point. We don’t want to live in a society in which we have perfect prevention of crime and perfectly efficient policing; that means there are no civil liberties. And we don’t want to live with perfect civil liberties, if it means we can do horrible things to each other.
“We need to be always vigilant in striking that balance,” he finishes. “It’s become too easy, post-9/11, to pick security.”