Following is a copy of a letter sent to Allentown City Council. It can serve as a model for letters you might wish to write to your City Council. (Except, of course, that the first paragraph should reflect the current status in that town, not Allentown.)
If you hear of any moves to install cameras in other cities, please send an email to Peter Crownfield or, if you’re a subscriber to the Rights-LV group, just send a message to the group.
Bill of Rights Defense CommitteeLehigh Valley
November 14, 2008
Allentown City Council
435 Hamilton Street
Allentown, PA 18101
Dear City Council member:
We have read that the City has installed some 80–100 public surveillance cameras and plans to expand this system. These systems are expensive to install and operate, but reports indicate that they are not very
effective at reducing crime and can have a chilling effect on civil liberties.
Unfortunately, the article did not provide much in the way of details about the system and the City has not involved the public in an open discussion of these systems, their capabilities and weaknesses, and their possible impact on the civil liberties upon which our nation is based. The primary purpose of this letter is to request that Council require such a public review process before any further use of these systems.
Typically, a fixed camera—deployed to cover an ATM or other specific high-risk location—is less expensive and more effective than controllable live-video cameras, and it has less impact on privacy. (Even with fixed systems, though, the long-term tendency is not to reduce crime but to change criminal behavior: the criminal wears a ski mask or shoots out the camera when entering.)
Modern video surveillance systems are very different from such fixed security cameras, with features that sound like they belong in North Korea—or George Orwell’s 1984—not in a democracy:
- The system itself can decide’ that a person’s behavior is suspicious’ and then track that individual from one camera to another, with no operator intervention required.
- An operator can observe people entering and leaving places such as a psychologist’s office or an attorney’s office or participating in protected activities–and it’s all recorded.
- A curious–or nosy–operator can zoom in on an individual and track him or her.
- An operator can zoom in and read the letter you just opened or the label on your package.
- Many systems identify persons using facial recognition technology–despite the fact that this technology is prone to error. (As are the government watch lists’.)
- Unlike fixed systems, surveillance cameras that can pan and zoom to cover a specific area often are not aimed at the point where a crime occurs–and are therefore less effective than fixed cameras for identifying the perpetrators after a crime is reported.
- When software is used to block cameras from peering into windows or door to buildings, the original video feed may not be blocked, allowing investigators to violate Constitutional protections–or even allowing a curious operator to peer into prohibited areas.
- Video can be archived permanently and may be released to others or used for fishing expeditions’.
- Other agencies may request access to archived video without a court-approved warrant, which increases the risk of violations of civil liberties and individual privacy.
How effective are these systems at reducing crime?
Unfortunately, live video surveillance is not particularly effective at reducing crime. Most studies that look at these systems and analyze their effect on crime show that they have no statistically-significant effect on crime. In some cases, there seems to be a marginal reduction in the covered area–but it’s offset by an increase just outside the covered area.
Steps to take before allowing new or continuing video surveillance of public areas
Before the City allows any—new or continuing—video surveillance of public areas we ask that you take the following steps:
1. Require an independent civil liberties impact statement’ that examines the civil-liberties implications of the proposed system, because if the City violates individuals’ civil liberties, the city can be held liable. (Even the Homeland Security’ department recommends such a statement.)
2. Require a clear written statement of the law-enforcement purpose(s) the planned system is intended to serve and a plan for assessing effectiveness, including specific measurable goals against which outcomes will be tested.
3. Require an analysis of alternative ways to achieve the same goals (additional police officers or improved lighting, for example), as well as the cost and effectiveness of each approach; make the complete analysis
available to the public.
4. Require detailed policies and procedures to ensure that operators and their supervisors will preserve civil liberties and individual privacy. There have been many horror stories’ about leaked video footage, and you
wouldn’t want the City to face such charges.
5. Make all of the above reports and analyses available to the public and then hold a series of well-publicized public hearings in which you make all residents fully aware of the potentially-invasive capabilities of the proposed systems as well as their limitations and civil liberties impacts, and then accept input or testimony from all concerned parties.
Only after completing these steps is it possible to make a responsible decision with respect to use of video surveillance technology.
Bill of Rights Defense CommitteeLehigh Valley <firstname.lastname@example.org>
By: [Partial listing, due to time constraints] Peter Crownfield, Hilde Binford, Greta Browne, Louise Legun, Jessica R. Dreistadt, Andrea Saunders, Summre Inama, Kanchan Maskey, Bernard J. Berg, Stephen Hoog, Robert J. Weick, Maria A. Weick, Daisy Willis, Susie Ravitz, Lisa Perfetti, Robert Daniels II, Josh Bushey, Suzanne H. Buller, K. Bridger Buller, Walt Garvin, Martin Boksenbaum
cc: Ed Pawlowski, Mayor; Michael Hanlon, City Clerk
- California Research Bureau; Measuring the Effects of Video Surveillance on Crime in Los Angeles’; May 2008.
- Constitution Project; Guidelines For Public Video Surveillance’; 2008.
- Biale, Noam; ‘Expert Findings on Surveillance Cameras’; 2008.
- Ewing, William H. Esq.; ‘Video Surveillance of Philadelphians’; 2006.
- Feige, Barb; Public Security Camera Systems ; 2008.
- Newark, NJ, Police Department; ‘Wireless Digital Video System (WDVS)’, General Order No. 07-09Rev.; 2008.
- Ngo, Melissa; Video Interoperability for Public Safety’, testimony to the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary of the D.C. Council; 2008.
- NYCLU; Local legislation mandating the use of surveillance cameras and identification scanners’; 2006.
- Ozer, Nicole A. and Schlosberg, Mark; Under the Watchful Eye: The Proliferation of Video Surveillance Systems in California’; 2007.
- Schneier, Bruce; ‘CCTV doesn’t keep us safe, yet the cameras are everywhere’; Guardian UK June 2008
- Sweeney, Latanya; Privacy Technologies for Homeland Security’; 2005.
- UC Berkeley School of Law (Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic); CCTV: Developing Best Practices’ workshop proceedings 2008.