Surveillance vs. Privacy
by Tom Olago
The age-old battle between surveillance and privacy continues unabated, as police across the United States increasingly use sophisticated surveillance systems to monitor daily life in their communities. Average citizens and privacy advocates say the ability to monitor and record public activity at such an extraordinary level is a threat to personal privacy.
Privacy advocates also say people could become more cautious about exercising their rights of free speech, association and assembly if they think they are under constant surveillance. Privacy advocates span the broad spectrum of society and include such strange bedfellows as the ACLU and tea party groups, all with strong common objections about the growing surveillance networks.
On the other hand, law enforcement and security agencies argue that public safety is the overriding and more important concern, and that comparatively, personal privacy sacrifices that may be made towards that end pale in significance. A recent analysis of this seemingly unending stand-off was made by Kevin Haas of GateHouse Media, and published in the McPherson Sentinel.com.
The latest surveillance technologies sparking privacy debates are reported to include:
1.Ultra-high-definition, high-speed cameras capable of capturing photos of passing license plates, paired with software that compares plate numbers with lists of wanted suspects, missing persons or stolen vehicles.
2.Networks of high-definition cameras that can be coupled with software that recognizes faces or sends alerts on suspicious activities. For example, Seattle police have new facial recognition software that matches images captured on surveillance video or other cameras with mug shot databases.
3.Aerial drones with high-definition and night-vision cameras. Used in everything from law enforcement and rescue operations to wildlife tracking and commercial photography, drones pose concerns because of their ability to fly over areas where people may expect privacy.
4.Wide-area aerial surveillance capable of recording every movement across the scope of a small city for hours. An example is Dayton-based Persistent Surveillance Systems, which collects wide-area surveillance images in designated areas for police from cameras mounted on a Cessna airplane.
Haas’ analysis goes on to demonstrate how surveillance technology is a booming industry, with estimates that it will grow globally by almost 11 percent this year. Falling prices for equipment and access to hundreds of millions of federal anti-terrorism dollars have further contributed to this growth. The overall effect of these trends is that more of the nation’s police departments will be able to record and store thousands of hours of video and data on public activity. For instance, Houston police have bolstered their network of cameras from 37 in 2009 to 650 today. So far, Chicago has the nation’s most extensive and connected network of cameras, estimated at 25,000.
A major issue for privacy advocates is that few laws exist to govern how that information can be used. Further compounding this fundamental flaw in information control is that technology is advancing at a pace that far outstrips legislation, regulation and policy formulation. There are also great disparities in some of the laws governing surveillance practice and related data usage and retention in different states.
One such example given by Haas in the McPherson Sentinel is that just nine states have laws that regulate how long information can be stored or used from automatic license plate readers. This particular surveillance tool is used in all 50 states that records a vehicle’s time, date and GPS location along with a photo as it moves through the city. The lack of regulation leaves police departments or local officials to enact their own rules.
But fewer than half of police departments surveyed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2009 (the most recent policy survey) had a policy for the use of license plate readers. Among departments that did have a policy, less than half addressed how long data should be retained or how it should be shared. Police departments across the country are reported to hold varied internal policies on how long they keep surveillance footage, ranging from several days to several years.
Crime analysts say data gathered from surveillance can be useful in predictive policing strategies and so would prefer to keep the data forever, while privacy groups want strict limits on retention – just days or weeks, rather than months or years. The ACLU has called for legislation to limit data retention for license plate readers and provide other oversight, such as mandatory public reports on use of the systems.
Another primary concern of privacy advocates is that this wide-scale collection of data could be used to build a detailed picture of someone’s private comings and goings — medical appointments, religious affiliations, social and political activity. In the wrong hands, someone could track a boss, spouse, friend or enemy, political rival or anyone else with a car. They also fear the information could be used for fishing expeditions, random investigations or searches that have no clear target. An ACLU study in Maryland showed that for every 1 million license plates stored in a police database, only 47 were connected to a serious crime.
In the words of Jeramie Scott, national security counsel and privacy coalition coordinator for the Electronic Privacy Information Center: “Without proper transparency, oversight and accountability, the collection of video footage is opened up to secondary uses beyond a specific initial purpose and has a potential chilling effect on First Amendment protected activities”.
Jim Bueermann, president of the nonprofit Police Foundation, which works to improve policing in America said police can alleviate privacy concerns by making surveillance practices more transparent, as “Ninety-nine percent of what we do in policing isn’t really secret.” In Bueermann’s 13-year career as chief in Redlands, California, a Citizens’ Privacy Council to provide input for camera use and data access was created. The group was given open access to the police dispatch center to observe officers monitoring live surveillance feeds. They also could request records of who accessed recorded footage and audit the footage that police viewed.
Privacy advocates also want public notice of new surveillance technology so citizens can decide whether the technology is warranted. For example, this year Compton, California, residents learned of a secret nine-day test of an aerial surveillance program conducted by the L.A. County Sheriff’s office in 2012. Compton Mayor Aja Brown responded with a proposed policy that would require authorities to notify the public before installing surveillance equipment.
It has been proposed that policies that can strike a balance between public safety and privacy, while keeping up with fast-evolving technology, are required as an overall strategy. “You may have had policies in place that covered the initial use, but you may not have expanded those policies to appropriately address the expansive use of the technology,” said David Roberts, senior program manager at the Technology Center for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Virginia Delegate Rich Anderson is co-chair of a new bipartisan caucus of Virginia lawmakers formed to address privacy issues created by evolving technology. He hopes to pass a license plate reader law in early 2015, but expects new technology to keep lawmakers busy for years to come. Says Anderson: “This is a tricky thing to do because, let’s face it, the rule set never keeps up with the technology…as this technology expands exponentially, we need to figure out a way to come up with rule sets that govern it so that we find the right balance between legitimate needs of law enforcement and civil liberties.”