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Macon, Ga., Surveillance Project Raises Concerns

Commissioners in Macon-Bibb County, Ga., approved the use of security cameras in downtown Macon late last month, raising privacy concerns and sparking debate over surveillance.

(TNS) — Macon-Bibb County's commissioners approved the use of security cameras in downtown Macon late last month, raising privacy concerns and sparking debate over surveillance.

The government will install cameras from a private company across Macon, including 36 cameras downtown, eight along the Riverwalk, and 20 in Carolyn Crayton Park. Mayor Lester Miller and the Bibb County Sheriff's Office hope the cameras will serve as a deterrent and help investigators solve crimes.

The 64 cameras will not need to be constantly monitored and can send notifications to deputies much like traffic cameras, according to a presentation by the sheriff's office. Investigators will also be able to review footage after crimes happen.

Some county commissioners worried that citizens' privacy may be breached by the cameras. Legal experts say the cameras don't break any laws.

Privacy laws

Former dean of Mercer Law School and constitutional law professor Gary Simson said that, on a constitutional basis, the cameras are legal.

"While there have been court cases that prove that cameras are a form of search under the Fourth Amendment, these cameras are not targeting any one individual, they survey a large area," he said of the downtown cameras.

Simson referred to Katz v. U.S., a case that established modern technology surveillance as a form of search. It also established a "reasonable expectation of privacy," meaning a surveillance camera invading someone's private space is an unlawful search.

The cameras downtown are not targeted, though, and watch over a public space as opposed to a private one like someone's house.

"These cameras are not going into residential neighborhoods where people can have some issues of violating their privacy," Mayor Lester Miller said in a commission meeting. "There's no reasonable expectation of privacy when you're walking down a public street or if you're in a park or when you're along the river walk."

The next step in the legality of the cameras is tort law, civil wrongs that are not laid out in constitutional law but are still illegal. Simson, though not an expert in tort law, doubted that the cameras violated any prior precedents there, either.

David Hricik, a law professor at Mercer who teaches tort law, also didn't immediately see a violation.

"In a public place, absent some kind of misuse of the images, I don't see a current legal issue," he said. " I do think people should consider contacting their legislators, since it may be that there aren't clear limits on use."

A look at Verkada

Verkada, the company providing the cameras, has experienced security problems of their own, according to media reports.

Verkada is a multi-million dollar tech company that provides similar security to dozens of cities and private companies, including the Macon Housing Authority. The package approved by Bibb commissioners will cost almost $700,000 for 10 years of camera use, according to a presentation in a commission meeting.

In some past contracts, however, Verkada encountered issues. Bloomberg reported in 2021 that hundreds of Verkada employees could see camera footage from thousands of customers. They also reported that employees could toggle the "privacy setting" on customer cameras.

Another report noted that hackers breached the cameras for dozens of clients, including Tesla and multiple jails and schools. Verkada also had to nix facial recognition software after law changes earlier this year.

Verkada serves multiple Georgia cities like Columbus and Marietta. The county did not set an installation date for the cameras in Macon.

© 2023 The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.