Video surveillance cameras and closed-circuit television are
becoming more widespread in American life. Fears of terrorism
and crime as well as the availability of ever-cheaper cameras
have accelerated the trend.
Community and merchants groups are calling for installing video surveillance
cameras in some of Hartford's more troubled neighborhoods. These efforts
The use of sophisticated surveillance systems
by law enforcement is troubling in a democratic society. Do we really want
a British-style system for our city? In the words of Justice Louis D. Brandeis: "The
right of the people to be let alone [is] the most comprehensive
of rights and the right most valued by a civilized [people]." It is
argued that in today's world we must sacrifice individual liberty because
of the greater need for public safety. This is a false choice.
The United Kingdom has conducted what amounts to a massive experiment with
closed-circuit TV - video feeds monitored by human beings. In Britain, cameras
have been extensively deployed in public places. Any question about the
efficacy of surveillance cameras in fighting crime was laid to rest by the
two studies conducted by the British Home Office - a proponent of video
surveillance technology. In 2002, the Home Office reviewed 46 studies that
analyzed the cameras' crime-fighting value. In 2005, it reviewed 22. Half
showed a negative or no effect on crime. The other half showed a negligible
decrease - at most 4 percent.
Unmonitored cameras are the least effective.
Other American cities, notably Oakland and Detroit, considered video surveillance
and decided against it. The Oakland police chief said his department had
hoped to be "among
the pioneers in the field of taped video camera surveillance" but ultimately
found that "there is no conclusive way to establish that the presence
of video surveillance resulted in the prevention or reduction of crime." The
use of surveillance cameras was also abandoned in Miami Beach,
Newark, and White Plains and Mount Vernon, N.Y.
The bottom line is that in center-city and residential areas, video technology
has no beneficial effect on reducing crime. At best, it displaces criminal
activity to areas outside the range of the cameras. At worst, as in Britain,
it has negatively changed people's behavior; the camera becomes an instrument
to enforce social conformity. The fear of being spied upon by Big Brother
has a real cost to an open society.
Furthermore, monitored surveillance cameras are an invitation to abuse.
We know from the British experience that those monitoring cameras engage
in racial profiling as they pivot the cameras and zoom in on their targets.
Boredom is often relieved by surveillance camera voyeurism: focusing on
attractive women and amorous couples.
Cameras don't fight crime - cops do. Our natural fear of being victimized
by crime makes us predisposed to see surveillance cameras as a solution.
But once people know that cameras are not effective at reducing the crime
rate, they turn to the solution that does work - namely community policing.
Armed with the facts, people understand that cameras diminish security by
diverting limited funds from putting officers into our neighborhoods.
The surveillance camera issue is not whether we must sacrifice our freedom
to enhance our security. We purchase and install surveillance cameras to
the detriment of both our security and our freedom.
Annette Lamoreaux is legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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