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Caught on Camera: The Inconsistency of Privacy Advocates on Surveillance Technology

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, we’ve seen a lot of discussion about the crucial role that the abundance of surveillance cameras and smartphones played in finding the suspects. The general consensus seems to be that these technologies were useful. For example, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “The Boston bombing is a terrible reminder of why we’ve made these investments—including camera technology that could help us deter an attack, or investigate and apprehend those involved.” And Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel similarly endorsed surveillance cameras when he said, “I will say, as I always have, because we have continued to put cameras throughout the city for security … purposes, they serve an important function for the city in providing the type of safety on a day-to-day basis—not just for big events like a marathon, but day-to-day purposes.”

Not surprisingly privacy advocates worry that such a high-profile display of the benefits of these camera systems will lead to more public acceptance and adoption, and so they are trying to minimize the value of these systems by arguing that this is a rare event. Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy stated, “Clearly there are times when CCTV and other video-based means of capturing activity is important for security purposes. The fact of the matter is it’s only used for that an infinitesimal part of the time. This is really developed for commercial eavesdropping and profiling.” Similarly Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, stated, “I don’t know any civil libertarian who is seriously arguing that cameras are not valuable in these high-risk events. But even police states can’t deter all attacks.”

Although dismissive, these comments at least recognize the benefit of surveillance cameras as a forensic tool. Have privacy advocates acknowledged these benefits in the past? Not really. The website for the U.K.-based advocacy group No-CCTV, whose work has been endorsed by U.S.-based groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), states quite clearly its belief that “the statistics show that more CCTV cameras does not lead to a better crime clear-up rate.” And Melissa Ngo, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), issued a statement in 2008 to the DC Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs claiming that “in the District itself there is no evidence that CCTV significantly deters crime or substantially helps to solve crimes.”

Indeed recognizing that their views are now so far outside the mainstream, privacy advocates seem to be making an effort to try to sound more reasonable. Following the Boston Marathon bombings Marc Rotenberg at EPIC said, “The information was obtained by the systems that were in place, which suggests that there’s a sufficient amount of surveillance taking place, and that police are able to work effectively with the information that is provided and available.” This statement is in sharp contrast to his earlier remarks on the subject. In 2005, when discussing Atlanta’s efforts to add surveillance cameras to public streets Rotenberg said, “It’s kind of creepy. Mass surveillance is essentially directed toward everyone, so it doesn’t matter if you are someone planning a crime or if you are a resident or tourist or someone who is walking into an office building to go to work. Everyone gets swept into these big databases.” It’s a bit disingenuous for these privacy advocates to claim that they now think we have “just enough” surveillance after having spent years fighting tooth and nail over every advancement of the technology.

Other privacy advocates want us to believe that they aren’t opposed to the technology itself—it’s just that the cameras cost too much or are ineffective. For example, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley wrote an op-ed this past week in USA Today arguing that “before we plunge ahead in creating a fishbowl society of surveillance, we might want to ask whether such new measures or devices will actually make us safer or just make us feel safer.” His point is fair enough—we should have a reasoned discussion about whether the benefits of a particular technology outweigh the costs. (Although it is a bit ironic to hear this since privacy advocates usually argue that privacy is a right that should be defended regardless of the costs.)

And what does the data say about the cost and effectiveness? Well, according to the privacy advocates, nothing good. For example, the group Privacy International says, “Studies of the efficacy of CCTV in preventing crime have been inconclusive at best.” However, in 2011 the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center studied the cost and effectiveness of surveillance cameras in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, DC, and they found significant declines in total crime, violent crime, and robberies in Baltimore and Chicago as a result of the cameras, but no effect on crime in Washington, DC. And the city government saved $1.06 for every dollar spent in Baltimore and $2.81 in Chicago, leaving aside victim costs (i.e. only including items in the city’s budget).

Why was Washington, DC different than the other two cities? As the study’s authors concluded, “Much of the success or failure depended on how the surveillance system was set up and monitored and how each city balanced privacy and security…Cities and neighborhoods that saw no change in crime may not be actively monitoring their cameras or may have had too few cameras to render the system a useful crime prevention and investigation tool.”

So if a city puts privacy ahead of utility, then the system doesn’t perform well. But why did Washington, DC have more privacy rules in place than the other cities? As the Urban Institute study noted, “The city council held open hearings for the public and interest groups and designed camera guidelines based on their input.” Which public interest groups? Specifically, privacy groups like EPIC who “recommended strong privacy safeguards” and opposed efforts to centralize monitoring of security cameras.

Basically privacy advocates insist on rules that make these camera systems ineffective, and then they claim these ineffective systems are evidence that money should not be spent on these projects elsewhere. Indeed one reason some of the most important footage of the Boston Marathon bombing came from private businesses and individuals rather than the public sector is precisely because of this type of opposition.

Some privacy advocates have claimed that they might support the camera systems if only they were more cost-effective. For example, Marc Rotenberg, president of the EPIC, testified to the DC City Council that “…the value of cameras is overstated and that money is better spent on officers than on cameras.” Again, this is just another feint to keep cities from deploying these cameras.

First, as noted above, these systems can be cost-effective. Second, these libertarian-leaning groups are not likely to seriously support more police. As Neil Richards, a privacy advocate and law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said recently, “I don’t think we would tolerate more cameras on every corner any more than we would tolerate police officers on every corner.”  Third, efforts to make surveillance cameras more cost-effective—such as by networking cameras together, using more advanced cameras with higher-resolution imaging and zoom features, and using technologies like facial recognition—are consistently opposed by privacy groups. For example, in its report opposing surveillance cameras in Chicago the ACLU of Illinois writes, “Facial recognition and automatic tracking go far beyond the powers of ordinary human observation, and are highly invasive of privacy.” Similarly, Marc Rotenberg at EPIC argued against better cameras in DC by saying, “there is also a rapid evolution underway that makes surveillance far more intrusive than most people understand.”

My point is simple—we shouldn’t get hoodwinked by these privacy advocates who are now trying to claim that they are only voicing reasonable opposition to this technology. Their opposition is not based on cost or effectiveness, and they shouldn’t pretend otherwise. And fortunately, we have the tapes (and documents) to prove it.

Photo credit: Flickr user Wallula Junction

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