Friday, August 21, 2009

How useful is video surveillance, really?

Thursday's Boston Metro (Cities, towns weigh benefits of cameras) covered the continuing controversy over Department of Homeland Security video surveillance cameras in the Boston area, and highlighted ACLU concerns.

The article led with Lt. Phil Harrington of the Brookline Police Department saying, "I think this just solidifies the idea that these [cameras] have great benefits." But we think the jury is still out on that.

Video images did show a pickup truck that might have been involved in an abduction and rape in Brookline earlier this week -- but we apparently don't know for certain yet if it's the right truck.

Then, Thursday, police made an arrest. We hope they're on the right trail and have arrested one of the culprits, but we don't know that for sure yet either.

It's also important to remember that the video images the cameras captured might not be of any use at all if the victim hadn't escaped and told police what to look for in the recordings. The cameras certainly didn't prevent this crime, and even if they did capture images of the truck near the scene of the crime, they apparently didn't get video of the actual abduction.

So how "great" are the cameras' benefits, really?

Then there's the fact that one of the main original reasons the Department of Homeland Security put up the money for the cameras in the first place was that they were supposed to be useful in the event of a terrorist attack or an evacuation of the city. That raised civil liberties concerns because the plans called for networking the cameras in nine Greater Boston communities, and it raised questions over who would control the cameras and the data they collected. As a result, civil libertarians organized and won votes against them in both Brookline and Cambridge.

The ACLU doesn't oppose video surveillance in specific sensitive locations where it can be helpful to keep people safe or enforce the law, such as entrances and exits to transit systems, stadiums, or for a limited time in a particular area as part of a specific investigation -- but there are serious concerns about the cost of surveillance cameras, their lack of effectiveness, and a lack of control over how they are used. In our case, going after criminal activity with video surveillance doesn't require the kind of infrastructure that Homeland Security was putting in place.

The fact is that video surveillance is not a magic solution to crime, and government surveillance of citizens in the name of security has been a hallmark of totalitarian societies throughout the world. We really need to consider how far we want to move in that direction.

You can learn more about what's wrong with public video surveillance here.

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