cctv1a.jpgThere’s a new British import to America, and sadly, it isn’t a rock band. It’s CCTV. In many of Britain’s cities, there is an elaborate network of thousands of surveillance cameras monitored through closed circuit television (CCTV). According to estimates, there are about 4 million surveillance cameras in Britain and a citizen is caught on surveillance camera about 300 times per day.

The AP reports that NYC is starting to install hundreds of surveillance cameras in an effort to mimic Britain’s CCTV. According to the AP:

[The] program [will] place 500 cameras throughout the city at a cost of $9 million. Hundreds of additional cameras could follow if the city receives $81.5 million in federal grants it has requested to safeguard Lower Manhattan and parts of midtown with a surveillance “ring of steel” modeled after security measures in London’s financial district.

Officials of the New York Police Department — which considers itself at the forefront of counterterrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — claim the money would be well-spent, especially since the revelations that al-Qaida members once cased the New York Stock Exchange and other financial institutions. . . .

The city already has about 1,000 cameras in the subways, with 2,100 scheduled to be in place by 2008. An additional 3,100 cameras monitor city housing projects.

New York’s approach isn’t unique. Chicago spent roughly $5 million on a 2,000-camera system. Homeland Security officials in Washington plan to spend $9.8 million for surveillance cameras and sensors on a rail line near the Capitol. And Philadelphia has increasingly relied on video surveillance.

The problem with such surveillance measures is that they are implemented without considering all of the issues. How will people be monitored? What procedures will be put in place to ensure that minorities will not be unfairly singled out? How long will the surveillance video be kept? How will it be analyzed? Who will get to see the video? How will the video be protected against leaks to the media? How will we prvent abuses by government officials? What procedures will be established to ensure that the surveillance is being done properly and not to deter lawful political protest? How do we prevent mission creep — the data being used for all sorts of different purposes down the road?

Several years ago, my colleague Jeff Rosen wrote an insightful piece about CCTV (which is reproduced as part of his book, The Naked Crowd). He observed:

But CCTV cameras have a mysterious knack for justifying themselves regardless of what happens to crime. When crime goes up, the cameras get the credit for detecting it, and when crime goes down, they get the credit for preventing it.

For an interesting empirical analysis of CCTV in Britain, see Clive Norris & Gary Armstrong, The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV. And Chris Slobogin’s article on the problems of public surveillance is definitely worth reading: Public Privacy: Camera Surveillance of Public Places and the Right to Anonymity.

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3 Responses

  1. bigbrother says:

    how exactly would a camera system single out minorities? presumably it would be used to identify someone who committed a crime when a crime occurred, am i wrong? if an african-american committed a crime they would be caught on camera just like european-american would. am i missing something here?

  2. The cameras don’t single them out; it’s the people who watch the camera systems and decide what to do about what they see. The Norris & Armstrong book has an interesting discussion about the issue.

  3. m kenny says:

    The potential for abuse is great cctv could make

    privacy a thing of the past. never again would

    you be alone.Law abiding citizens will be watched

    as closely as criminals DO YOU really trust the government that much