In an unprecedented proliferation of public spying, government is casting its watchful eye on millions of ordinary Americans through largely unregulated surveillance cameras trained on public spaces throughout the nation.
A Scripps Howard News Service tally found that at least 200 towns and cities in 37 states now employ video cameras _ or are in the process of doing so _ to watch sidewalks, parks, schools, buses, buildings and similar community locales. That number excludes the approximately 110 other municipalities that use traffic cameras to catch speeders and red-light runners.
But despite their proliferation and potential for altering the very tenor of public life in America, virtually no one is keeping track of the use of these security devices long associated with authoritarian regimes.
In many cases, the increasingly sophisticated general surveillance systems _ a growing number of which are capable of networking to compile and share information about those under view _ are deployed unaccompanied by written policies or other strictures to limit abuse.
More troubling to civil liberties and camera-use proponents alike is the even greater absence of local, state or federal laws that specifically govern police-video surveillance of Americans, suspected of no crime, as they go about their daily business.
Equally rare are enforceable regulations on such matters as who or what can be watched, how long images can be kept, who can see and share them, where a person’s “zone of privacy” begins, and what recourse and punishments exist if that privacy is abused.
To Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector Thomas Nestel III, who played a major role in his city’s referendum vote last month on the installation of video cameras, the lack of oversight is an ill-advised invitation to trouble.
“Forging ahead with reckless abandon by providing no written direction, no supervision, no training and no regulating legislation creates a recipe for disaster,” Nestel wrote in a March research thesis on the phenomenon, one of the only in-depth, national studies of the subject to have been done.
While headlines and congressional and court hearings are examining the CIA and other agencies’ eavesdropping and Internet snooping programs, the coast-to-coast spread of public spy cameras is occurring largely on the periphery of the nation’s attention, even though it brings with it a catalog of “Big Brother” privacy concerns.
The American Civil Liberties Union and a handful of other watchdogs have occasionally sounded the alarm, but now are largely focused on other issues.
Many are watching but few are regulating
Even as more corners of America’s public spaces are coming under the eye of government-run surveillance cameras, few rules or regulations exist to oversee their use. Video surveillance by the numbers
Video surveillance cameras first came to America in the 1960s when federal law directed U.S. banks to install them as a security device. Video becomes a crime fighting tool
Big and small, cities across the United States are installing video surveillance cameras in public places to fight vandalism, crime and terrorism.
The lack of attention worries former Rep. Dick Armey, who, when he was the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, was an outspoken opponent of law-enforcement-by-video camera.
“It seems like we need to be giving surveillance to the surveillance,” said the Texas Republican, now chairman of the Washington-based political advocacy group Freedom Works. “I would hope somebody in the House or Senate would raise the privacy issues.”
Meanwhile, the presence of government-run cameras is growing by the month, thanks to technology advances that are cutting the cost of the systems and to a bountiful spigot of federal anti-terror funds available to pay for them.
In June alone, for instance, the cities of Spokane, Wash.; Kissimmee, Fla.; South Bend, Ind.; and Hazelton, Pa., decided either to seek funds for cameras, gave the formal OK to use them, or began installing a system. In May, Philadelphia voters by a nearly 4 to 1 margin backed the use of cameras, and Milwaukee, Wis., joined the city-camera fraternity.
This growth parallels that of the increase in the number of security cameras being installed by the private sector in America. Now a $9-billion industry, it is projected to more than double to $20 billion by 2010, according to security experts.
In all, an estimated 5 million video surveillance devices are in use nationwide today _ and that number is forecast to double in only five more years. Oversight of these is similarly sparse.
“The technology is way ahead of the law,” said James Ross, assistant criminal justice professor at the State University of New York-Brockport and an authority on privacy and security issues.
Banks and bars, convenience stores, churches and cemeteries, shopping malls, apartment buildings and farms _ all now commonly watch us. An average department store is estimated to have at least 100 cameras trained on shoppers and staff. Even the six bridges of Madison County, Iowa are equipped with them.
“It’s just a huge proliferation,” said Rajiv Shah, an expert on the security industry and a communications professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Also expanding is the capability of the cameras and the increasing sweep of their focus.
Now available, and being installed in several cities, are devices that can record in near-total darkness and are so powerful they can read a license plate up to a mile away or words on a cigarette pack 100 yards distant.
Some also are programmed to automatically alert authorities when they detect up to a dozen threatening or otherwise suspicious body movements, or vehicles traveling too slow or too fast. Technology to recognize individual faces is on the drawing board.
In Chicago, where 2,000 cameras already are in place, Mayor Richard Daley recently proposed requiring every business open more than 12 hours a day _ about 12,000, including 7,000 restaurants _ to install indoor and outdoor cameras.
He said he intends to link public and private cameras alike to a central city government facility, which would provide an unprecedented degree of coordinated surveillance.
Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt also has plans for a bigger visual blanket. In February, he said he wants every apartment complex and shopping mall to have cameras, and said it is worth considering a requirement that every home that frequently warrants police attention must install them, as well.
While such suggestions draw howls from civil liberties activists, they so far have triggered no apparent notice on Capitol Hill, in the Bush administration or most statehouses.
Part of the reason for the lack of congressional or other government oversight is the public’s general approval of the use of such cameras, and the lack of attention addressed to the technology’s pitfalls, experts say.
A nationwide Harris Poll in February found that 67 percent of respondents supported expanding video surveillance on streets and public places _a jump from the 59 percent who felt that way in a June 2005 poll.
Citizens say they like the fact that security cameras can help police catch criminals and serve as a deterrent to wrongdoers, who know they risk identification in areas under the lens, according to Shah and others who study the issue.
“Most recognize the benefits of cameras and say if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to hide if a camera is there,” Shah said.
And Barry Levine, chief executive officer of surveillance product manufacturer Sperry West in San Diego, says the camera industry itself is sensitive to privacy concerns and has developed products that, among other things, can be programmed not to peer into windows.
“Even covert cameras recognize a zone of privacy,” Levine said.
But the effectiveness of the devices as anti-crime weapons is in dispute, and even those who favor cameras temper their support when presented with a litany of possible abuses, experts said.
“People often don’t see the big picture,” said Jay Stanley, a director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program.
There is no shortage of examples of the cameras aiding police in capturing culprits. Grainy shots of crooks robbing banks and convenience stores have become staples of local TV newscasts and are credited with cracking cases.
Last month, security cameras in Philadelphia recorded a gunman just moments before he shot a police officer investigating an armed robbery. Also in May, a sharp-eyed city video technician in Wilmington, Del., spotted the main suspect in the killing of an 84-year-old woman and tracked his movements until police could arrest him.
Although few long-term studies have been done, several cities say cameras have contributed to an overall drop in crime.
In Greenville, N.C., the police chief said auto thefts, burglaries and other offenses dropped by 32 percent in the first six months after the cameras were installed to watch the public on city streets. Baltimore police recorded a 20 percent crime decrease in areas monitored by the city’s 283 cameras.
In Chicago, the devices are credited with helping to push crime down to the lowest levels in 40 years. New Orleans police said their system had a similar effect on downtown crime. (They also note that their camera network was the only communications link that survived Hurricane Katrina.)
Even privacy hawks such as Jay Stanley, who directs the ACLU’s technology and liberty program, acknowledge cameras can be valuable _ if used in a restricted way.
“We would never say every camera should be taken down,” Stanley said.
But he and other critics contend that the worth of spy camera systems has not yet been proved.
In Britain, one of the world’s most watched countries, a government study released in February found that the estimated 4.2 million cameras arrayed across that nation have done little to reduce crime in the decade they have been in use. As a result, officials there have decided not to install any more cameras.
In 2000, a University of Cincinnati study came to a similar conclusion, finding that crime in Cincinnati dropped initially after the eight cameras were deployed but then rebounded. In Minneapolis, overall crime actually increased a bit during the 11 months after cameras were installed, according to a May 10 report by city of St. Paul’s mayor’s office.
And St. Petersburg, Fla., police officials said images from cameras there had not “been successfully used in prosecution” of any crime in 15 years, according to researcher Nestel’s study.
If the effect of cameras on crime remains in dispute, experts say there is no disagreement that, as Nestel put it, “potential abuse lurks at the turn of every camera.”
In Tuscaloosa, Ala., state police have been accused of focusing a camera not on the intersection it was supposed to be monitoring, but on the breasts and buttocks of young women walking down the street. In Overton County, Tenn., parents have filed suit against school officials for allowing cameras to film children undressing in middle-school locker rooms.
More troubling to privacy advocates was the graphic police-camera video of the 2004 gunshot suicide of a young man in New York City housing project that wound up on a pornographic Web site for the world to see.
Critics also worry that, without sufficient safeguards, unethical police or city personnel might sell other sensitive or grisly videos to Internet sites or to the growing number of reality police series cropping up on cable TV.
The cameras also offer far more chilling opportunities for abuse beyond video voyeurism, such as for racial profiling of minorities or intimidating political or other protesters. Those who patronize gay bars or strip clubs, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or are under treatment by a psychiatrist could be vulnerable to extortion and blackmail.
To forestall problems, a handful of city police departments have adopted their own written rules, including New York City, Chicago and Honolulu.
But, according to Nestel’s survey of some of the largest U.S. police departments, most haven’t. Among those lacking written policies are Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Dallas, Fresno, Calif., Minneapolis, and Tampa, and St. Petersburg, Fla.
Equally troubling to privacy advocates is the ability government will soon have to construct dossiers of suspected criminals and innocent individuals alike, using networked cameras and other databases to document every aspect of a person’s life and track his every move. In Beijing, China, where 260,000 cameras scan the city and thousands more are on the way, authorities are doing just that.
“Today, every bit of information can be collated, marshaled, can be used,” said David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union.
With each citizen already under watch by between 10 and 100 cameras a day _ depending on where he or she lives _ America’s zone of personal privacy and public anonymity is in jeopardy of shrinking further, perhaps to just the confines of a person’s residence, and those of public restrooms or locker rooms.
“The question is: How much of our civil liberties do we want to trade?” New York professor Ross said. “Are we getting a fair payback (from the video cameras) for giving up our freedoms?”