Urban Surveillance Raises Civil Liberties Concerns In Wake Of Boston Bombings

by Categorized: Consumer, Media, Technology Date:

It’s clear that cities are moving headlong into not just widespread video surveillance, but also some very sophisticated forms of monitoring and artificial intelligence to manage all those images, as I wrote in a column Monday.  The Boston Marathon bombings displayed some of that, and will certainly speed it up.

Does anyone see a danger in all this spycam technology?  I spoke with a couple of lawyers in Connecticut who say yes, the public should be much more involved in how video surveillance is used, who gets to see the data and how long the records are kept.

“There needs to be a discussion and people have to realize how this will change things,” said David McGuire, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, in Hartford. “If you’re going to put cameras all throughout your town or cities, you owe it to your citizens to regulate that.”

This is not just a theoretical issue. Last year, the ACLU shocked a lot of us when it revealed that police departments in Connecticut were making — and keeping — millions of scans of license plates showing motorists’ exact movements.

The group tried to push a law through the General Assembly requiring authorities to destroy the data after 14 days unless there’s a criminal investigation underway. But the bill died last year and it’s not looking good for passage this year.

What’s the worry?

“These ever-growing databases will easily be able to reconstruct an individual’s movements or identify the vehicles that visit a particular church, mosque, adult bookstore or motel,” McGuire said in written testimony to the legislature. “This opens the door to retroactive surveillance of innocent people without a warrant, probable cause or any form of judicial oversight.”

In another instance, McGuire said, the Bridgeport schools installed cameras and other technology in a 4-block radius around the three high schools there — as part of an effort to assure safety, called “Safe Corridors.”

“The safe corridors brochure makes no mention of the video surveillance,” McGuire said. “The public needs to be engaged and there need to be reasonable safeguards in place.”

That’s the problem — the public isn’t engaged on the issue of surveillance, and ACLU has not been able to generate much discussion.

The issue here isn’t whether surveillance ought to be used. In a poll of 1,000 adults, conducted Monday and Tuesday and released Wednesday, Rasmussen Reports showed that 70 percent of Americans favor the use of surveillance cameras in public places — confirming the obvious.  If cameras can save lives and help avert tragedies like the Boston bombings, great.

But Rasmussen failed to ask how and whether spycam technology should be regulated — and few people seem concerned about this question. That seems odd.  It’s a sign of apathy, not an active public decision to do what it takes to boost public safety.

Part of the issue, said Norman Pattis, a New Haven attorney specializing in civil rights, is that expectations of privacy are eroding, along with privacy itself.

“I’m not so sure we think we have any privacy anymore,” Pattis said. “Social media and the younger generation lets it all hang out daily.”

Another problem, as Pattis sees it: the overlap of corporate and government activities, especially when it comes to surveillance.  Most of the systems being installed are done by private vendors to public agencies, and they are basically networking America — without clear lines of authority, and without clear boundaries as to what, exactly, is being watched, by whom.

“The Fourth Amendment imposes a limit on government, not corporations,” Pattis said. “I don’t think the law has caught up with the technology at all…if they become part of the government then you can treat them as an arm of the government.”

Looking at the technologies in use, no single system constitutes Big Brother by itself. But sooner or later it will be possible for companies and cities to combine spycam technologies to create a clear, permanent record of people’s activities. In addition to scanning systems for license plates and faces, there are, to give just two examples, systems that “learn” what is unusual in a scene, and issue warnings; and systems that remember who was at a certain location before.

“With all of this massive technology and invasive technology a keystroke away from the government’s use, at what point does it become the government?” Pattis asks. “The government will have at its fingertips the ability to know anything that we do, and that will undermine any sense of autonomy…People have a right to be left alone.”

Or do they? So far, we’ve seen precious little discussion of the issue.

“We’re being told that if we trade privacy for security, we’ll be safe,” Pattis said. “That’s the bill of goods that we’re being sold every day, that’s the danger of Boston.”

Boston raised awareness of the power of surveillance, just as 9/11 raised the profile more broadly of counter-terrorism, but that doesn’t mean the activities should be limitless.

“The American people value their privacy, much more than anyplace else in the world,” McGuire said.

That might not be true anymore, as we see surveillance not just for public safety, but marketing.

As one commenter to an earlier version of this column posted on Wednesday, “I am all for surveillance cameras. I worry more about being accosted by some slime bag after my possessions than I do about Target knowing what kind of car I drive.”



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8 thoughts on “Urban Surveillance Raises Civil Liberties Concerns In Wake Of Boston Bombings

  1. p hofperson

    if you’re not doing anything you shouldn’t be doing then you won’t get in trouble. I’d rather have them know before something happens rather than after.

  2. Matt from CT

    >if you’re not doing anything you
    >shouldn’t be doing then you won’t
    >get in trouble.


    So a cop will never, ever use the system to track a woman he’s developed a crush on in order to figure out who she is, where she lives, and then rape her?

    Must be nice to go through life so naive.

    >I’d rather have them know before
    >something happens rather than after.

    Cameras don’t read minds or predict the future — they are considered “detective controls;” they allow you to figure out who did something and punish them after the fact (and deter folks who are afraid of being caught.)

    Data retention is one big issue with these cameras, last time I looked at a commercial grade security camera catalog (a couple years ago) most systems were coming with NINE months of retention. That’s far too long IMHO. If you can’t figure out someone’s been stealing from your register after a month of surveillance, going back nine won’t help you.

    One issue Dan didn’t bring up is facial recognition and private license plate readers.

    We are rapidly heading to the world were companies like Target and Walmart and Cumberland Farms will track your movements for marketing.

    Not just when paying by credit card — they’ll keep track of license plates in their parking lots.

    They’ll see your face when you pay by credit card at the register, then keep that so the next time that face pays by cash they can record that transaction in their customer database associated with you.

    No reason to think that in a decade they won’t track you from the store to the car — I’m sure Target’s data mining folks would love to know what customers drive Mercedes and which come on the public bus when targeting ads.

    A second issue he didn’t mention is police trying to network together private cameras. Worcester, MA recently proposed this. Pretty easy to do over the internet — and while there may be some good justifications for using them for “incident response” (alarms at the store, 911 calls in the neighborhood), careful controls need to be in place over the actual *recordings*.

    Worcester pledged not to record the video at the police department; what they refused to answer implying that the system would allow them too is whether they would have access to the stored video as well as the live feeds. It is safe to assume what Worcester is trying to setup will allow them anytime, no warrant needed access to private business video records as long back as they’re kept — nine months, two years, whatever.

    When tied to the improving resolution of security cameras and improving facial recognition this opens up the STRONG probability in the next decade — without legal limits imposed and those enforced by court sanction — both the police and private industry will be able to trace people’s movements back through multiple years, and be able to tie in not only where they were but what they were buying.

    But hey, you have nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong.

    Until that sexually deviant IT geek abusing his access to the cameras shows up at your house one night because, after all, you bought some condoms so you must want it, right?

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  4. JoAnn Glazewski

    I am all for surveillance cameras. I worry more about being accosted by some slime bag after my possessions than I do about Target knowing what kind of car I drive.

  5. walls

    Ben Franklin said “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”.

    It’s scary that law-abiding citizens neither apparently care nor understand the ramifications. The solution is to allow PROPER individuals in the country, and severe punishment for law violators.

  6. Esmeralda Frankel

    When given the choice between mass hysteria, insecurity, and surveillance, most will decide on surveillance.

    For me, I am divided between privacy and safety. If I had to take one or the other, I would prefer my privacy.

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