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Considering Privacy in the Age of the Camera

Surveillance cameras offer a powerful tool for law enforcement, but there are implications to consider for privacy, footage retention and public safety.

There is no question that technology and the Internet have irreversibly complicated our relationship with privacy. In fact, they have taken many of the old ideals of privacy out back and hit them with a shovel. 

The apps we use gather all sorts of data about us, some even listening to what we say while we are home on the couch. We select our mates — however temporary — by phone, send complete strangers racy photos and share images of the food we are about to ingest. But, mention the use of cameras in the public space and we panic.

“I don’t want someone watching me while I walk down the street. That's a violation of my privacy,” we squeak while navigating through a GPS app that sells our information to the highest bidder. 

Sure, sure, those other things are choices we make on our own accord and that information all goes through totally secure, privately owned channels, right? (Right?)

So maybe our problem with citywide surveillance systems is more about not having a choice, or perhaps it's just being creeped out by the idea of Big Brother peering over our shoulders at any given moment. 

Or maybe our aversion is as simple as the packaging we put around the tools used to keep track of people and events. Maybe if the police department had cooler logos and hired mustachioed hipster millennials, we wouldn’t be so nervous. (Don’t laugh, it works for Facebook.)

Whatever the case may be, we are both gun-shy and careless when it comes to our privacy. The fact of the matter is that regardless of how much video surveillance irks us, it is an unavoidable part of our 21st-century life. And while it may bewilder our sensibilities, forcing us to ask some very necessary questions, video systems are a valuable police tool — but that isn’t to say there aren’t serious considerations to think about.

Let’s talk privacy

It’s generally understood that in public spaces, privacy is not a reasonable expectation. This is why people wear clothes in public and don’t shower in park fountains. But increasingly advanced technology is allowing for things like behavioral analytics and long-term footage retention.

For Jay Stanley, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the technology poses some considerable concerns, even if it is in the public arena. Constant blanket monitoring of the public to catch a handful of bad actors goes against what he sees as democratic.

“We have a fundamental problem with monitoring everybody just because somebody might do something wrong. That’s not how life is supposed to work in a democracy,” he explained. “The government is not supposed to be looking over your shoulders all the time, just because you might be engaged in wrongdoing, and we’re approaching the point as a technological matter, that is increasingly something that is possible to do.”

Stanley also doubts the ability of video analytics technology to fully understand the complex and varied behavior of human beings. This was the case in San Diego several years ago, when the Municipal Transit Agency tried a program that didn’t pan out. Though the agency still uses cameras for monitoring purposes, the analytics deployed at the time wasn't quite ready for prime time.

Is the man in the center of the screen picking the lock to that door, or is he making good on a compulsive urge to lock and unlock the door exactly three times? A computer may not be able to tell, but the alarm bells offered up by the software will result in continued monitoring and an officer response until his behavior is completely understood. 

“The cost benefit ratio to law enforcement is questionable. Human life is very complex and computers are very poor at interpreting it," Stanley said. "There are all kinds of subtleties to human behavior that computers will never be able to understand, at least in the foreseeable future. And the result is that the things that look suspicious, the vast, vast majority are going to be false alarms."

He likens these warranted concerns to that of keyword monitoring in conversations — while there may be some people plotting a terror attack, the majority of the monitored conversations are going to center on jokes, sarcasm or non-threatening topics.

Boiled down, Stanley said his organization isn’t against the use of tools like license plate readers, as long as they are being used to look for wanted people or vehicles, and not just to catalog who was in a certain area at a certain time.

In the video arena, the ACLU is concerned about the retention of footage.

“We don’t object to license plate scanners being used to look for someone who is wanted or wanted cars, if they scan a license plate and don’t get a hit, they shouldn’t be retaining that data,” he said. “There is no reason for them to be compiling a database of the movement of people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing, even if there is the possibility of it being useful someday.”

The Balance to be Struck

If you talk to Austin, Texas, Police Department Cmdr. Darryl Jamail, he will tell you that protecting privacy is a substantial concern for his agency. A system of checks and balances stands between the Public Safety Camera System and the possibility of misuse.

Quarterly internal and unscheduled external audits ensure adherence to Public Safety Commission policy and a lieutenant oversees the officers working in the city’s real-time crime center.

“Basically we have a lieutenant in there to make sure the officers are not using [the cameras] in a way that would infringe on privacy," Jamail explained. "There has got to be some type of criminal nexus or public safety nexus to what they are looking at or what they are using the cameras for. Again, it’s just having those checks and balances.”

Austin’s video program doesn’t rely on algorithms to target potential suspects; a team of dedicated officers monitors cameras when a report of a crime comes through the system. The officers use radio to relay real-time intelligence to their peers in the field when a crime is reported.

Though analytics have been discussed as an option, the commander said many of the programs would require costly upgrades.

“It just comes down to resources and where we can focus our dollars to get the most results," he said. "Some of those things would require much higher resolution cameras to pick up … that type of activity in a crowd of 50,000 people; you’d need quite a few more cameras as well as higher-quality video.”

Data drives both the placement and monitoring of the system's four dozen cameras, called high-activity location observation (HALO) cameras, in active parts of the city, Jamail said.

“We monitor them real-time, we don’t have eyes on every single camera all the time," he said. "Again we just let the crime data tell us how we need to be looking at those and the times of day, and we base our staffing along those same areas.”

In areas where the camera’s field of view overlaps with private property, windows are permanently blocked out in the footage with black rectangles.

As for the retention of recorded footage, Jamail said investigators only have 10 days to access it before it is deleted permanently.  

“The cameras are all recorded, but we don’t retain anything longer than 10 days, that’s set by policy for a couple reasons," he said, "primarily it’s privacy concerns that if we haven’t been made aware of or looked for something in 10 days, we’re going to go ahead and let that go. Also because of the resources, we can’t afford to store the [footage] for more than 10 days."

While the commander acknowledges the overarching concerns about privacy and video, the system cameras have helped to identify a bank robbery suspect’s license plate and is being leveraged to find the dealers of a street drug that hospitalized 20 people in the early morning hours of Aug. 25.

As for the potential of future enhancement to the system, Jamail said the city is considering how it could leverage public-private partnerships with residents and businesses and their cameras, but he says the technology may still be a ways out. 

Where to Now?

As technology progresses, the potential for law enforcement to cross privacy boundaries — willfully or accidentally — is bound to increase. The conversation should not stop at video cameras or how long information is stored, but where citizens and police can find common ground.

Government agencies should engage with policy experts and the greater public and head off assumptions about what is or is not happening where they live. The tools may be useful, but the conversations will not be positive if people are left to assume intent.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was contacted for this story about its use of video and video analytics, but declined to comment because of the sensitive nature of its work.

Eyragon Eidam is the web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at