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Crime Prevention: City approves surveillance cameras, but who's going to be in charge of the tapes? 

On Aug. 12, City Council did what few cities have accomplished: institute privacy regulations before Homeland Security-sponsored cameras are placed on our waterways, highways and selected neighborhoods.

Pushed by City Councilor Bill Peduto, the regulations are designed to protect the civil liberties of citizens who appear on tape -- and allow the cameras to perform their much-touted function of stopping terrorism and preventing crime.

The new rules call for cameras to be operated only by city-trained personnel; for viewing logs to be kept; and for the footage to be retained for only 10 days unless it's part of a criminal investigation, civil suit or claim of police misconduct (the 30-day limit in the current law is a "typographical error," city officials say). They also commend new legal limits placed on targeting and labeling of individuals without probable cause and the sanctions leveled for rule violations, as well as the inclusion of three mayor-appointed members of the public on a new camera policy review panel.

For the most part, experts on privacy and security systems praised the measure. Thomas Nestel III, chief of police in Upper Moreland Township, Pa., near Philadelphia, has studied camera privacy rules nationwide and calls citizen participation in camera oversight "fantastic. The program is much more likely to be successful if there is community support."

In fact, Nestel and others like the fact that the city has any rules at all -- unlike so many other places using cameras. Even California security-tech expert Bruce Schneier, who calls camera systems in general a waste of money, says the new rules "look pretty good. The devil's in the details, and we don't have all the details."

Among the details causing concern: The policy largely exempts neighborhood groups who receive city funding to post stationary cameras in areas believed to be hotbeds of criminal activity.

Much of the debate over surveillance focuses on government-operated cameras, which can be remotely-controlled to track potential criminal or terrorist activity. But Nestel says, "Government cameras are probably less likely to be abused than neighborhood cameras. The operators of government cameras face the potential loss of employment if they use the cameras improperly while volunteers in the neighborhood centers have nothing to lose."

Indeed, under the new rules, the only sanction for abusing camera footage is that the city can have the cameras taken down. In theory, it would be possible for a neighborhood group to position a camera across the street from, say, the house of an activist who opposed the group, or the campaign headquarters of a political candidate the group opposed.

"The neighborhood groups ... are responsible for their own data retention" and have no limit on how much footage they may keep, mayoral spokesperson Joanna Doven acknowledges in an e-mail. But they do fall under city retention rules if they decide to feed their camera views into the city system or add tracking software.

But as long as a camera remains passively recording, without actively zooming in on individuals, Doven says, no one's rights are being infringed.

"To the extent that a benign activity occurs in the public right of way" where a camera has already been placed, she wrote, "that camera may lawfully record the entire event."

The exemption for neighborhood cameras was sought by City Councilor Darlene Harris. In her district alone there are several community groups -- in Brighton Heights, Brightwood, Troy Hill and East Allegheny -- who have received city funding to purchase the cameras.

The cameras are "just another tool" for public safety, she says. "The only reason the neighborhood [group] would be keeping [footage] is if there is an ongoing investigation and the police are involved. I'm sure they don't have anyone who would be watching 24 hours a day or even 8 hours a day," or who could find the right camera and minute to track an individual. Each camera has the capacity for only 30 days of footage at a time, she adds.

Meanwhile, some skeptics say, there's little evidence that the cameras do any good at all.

"Study after study by cities, law enforcement agencies, universities and civic groups have shown that camera surveillance systems do not significantly reduce crime," contends Melissa Ngo, a privacy and information policy consultant with privacylives.com, and until recently counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington D.C. "They can sometimes be useful in post-crime investigations, but cameras are easily stymied by sunglasses, hats or hoodies."

Ngo also notes that while the new policy calls for periodic review of the cameras, it doesn't spell out "what criteria will be used to measure the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the system. ... Will the city merely look at crime around the cameras, or will they take into account the fact that often cameras merely displace the crime to another area where there is no camera?"

Doven assures that current police crime stats "will reveal whether any camera has an impact on the overall crime rate."

The problem, says Schneier, starts "[o]nce you put the infrastructure in to support a police state and people are itching to use it."

click to enlarge City Councilor Darlene Harris
  • City Councilor Darlene Harris

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