Public Surveillance Cameras

By , October 15, 2001

During my first vacation to Europe in early September, one of the things I noticed was the conspicuous presence of thousands of surveillance cameras in public places. Whether for general anti-crime or specifically aimed at terrorist campaigns, these cameras seemed to be everywhere.

Even before September 11, cameras were rapidly being deployed in major American cities. In the wake of the terror spread by the air attacks and this week’s “anthrax letters,” security and public safety now seem nearly certain to trump any “Big Brother” privacy concerns.

I think it’s important to distinguish “public surveillance” from “private surveillance.”

Private Surveillance: Every American is aware noticed the presence of closed-circuit TV cameras in banks and convenience stores. These cameras are installed to help deter violent robberies, and to help identify and capture criminals. In most cases, the cameras are connected to tape machines, and the tapes are never watched unless a crime is known to have occurred.

Monitored surveillance cameras are also used to “extend” the eyesight of security staff in businesses. For example, urban parking garages often have on-site security staff with one or more closed-circuit monitors to watch for criminal activity or persons in distress. Some retail department stores use cameras and staff to detect (and deter) shoplifting. Cameras are commonly used at the entrances to secondary building entrances, including loading docks, so that a single employee can monitor multiple building entrances, and perhaps hallways and elevators within the building.

“Quasi-public” surveillance cameras
are those that private companies deploy to view activity in public places. These can include cameras deployed at building entrances, ostensibly to view persons seeking entry to the building. “Quasi-public” cameras are also installed at Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) to confirm the identity of persons initiating transactions, and to help deter violent robberies of ATM patrons.

These private cameras are “quasi-public” because law enforcement agencies routinely make use of these cameras, and actively seek to view tapes from these cameras when investigating the movement of persons who passed by the cameras, even if the investigation is unrelated to the activity of the business operating the camera. I think it is important to consider the use of thise “quasi public” private surveillance cameras, especially in situations where camera installation is strongly encouraged or actually required by government entities, or where tapes are actually used by law enforcement (or other agents of public entities) more frequently than by the business staff or owner.

Public surveillance cameras are those installed by federal, state, or local governments, or on their behalf. These include surveillance cameras on public transit (trains, buses, and ferries, and in transit stations), in public parks and facilities, on public streets and sidewalks, and in other public places.

Who Cares? I admit that I share some of the “who cares” attitude about most surveillance cameras that are placed in locations accessed by the general public. I am reassured by the presence of cameras in my bank’s ATM, especially late at night, since the camera’s presence deters many violent criminals from robbing me. I get similar reassurance from cameras in other public places where I might become the victim of violent crime. And I concede that cameras in retail stores help detect and deter shoplifting, the cost of which must otherwise be added to the retail price of goods I buy.

I Care: I do care, of course, about surveillance cameras that seem to invade on my private space. Despite security concerns, retail stores cannot legally install cameras in bathrooms or dressing rooms (and those who are caught breaking the law should properly expect bankruptcy from civil suits). Nor can cameras be installed in private or public places in order to peer into another person’s private home or business. Don’t be misled by the titilating ads for X10 wireless cameras: it is illegal to use technology to peer into a private bathroom, dressing room, or bedroom.

The Infinite Network of Surveillance Cameras: If you watch many TV shows and movies from Hollywood, you may already have seen a scene in which some clever hacker taps into the live feeds from public and private surveillance cameras, sometimes “following” a person as they walk down a public street, using a series of private and public cameras in ATM machines, convenience stores, laundromats, and traffic signals. This makes for great entertainment, but very few surveillance cameras are connected to computers at all (though the number is increasing), and fewer still are configured to allow remote viewing of the camera’s signal. Likewise, the frequent use in TV programs of “video enhancement” software that somehow zooms in on a small portion of a grainy 320×240 camera image into a detailed high-resolution picture of a person’s face or the writing on a piece of paper, is simply absurd.

It’s important to recognize that the vast majority of video surveillance cameras are connected only to a VCR in some back room or basement. Very few surveillance cameras have the ability to “zoom” or “pan.” And very few businesses have adequate internet bandwidth to allow real-time monitoring of even a single camera’s view from a remore location.

For some perspective on the notion of the “pervasive network” of surveillance cameras, I suggest that you check out the New York City Surveillance Camera Project, in which volunteers for the New York Civil Liberties Union walked every city block in Manhattan to record the presence of visible security cameras.  Some blocks appear to contain a dozen cameras or more, on the map they created.  “Of the 2,397 cameras, approximately 2,100 are private and fewer than 300 appear to be public.” (It is unclear if the NYC project included surveillance cameras in ATM machines or those installed inside retail stores whose view extends through glass doors and windows to public areas, nor whether cameras inside subway stations and train stations were included.)

Cost as a Deterrent: The cost of surveillance technology has dropped considerably in the past few decades, but the cost of cameras and VCRs isn’t really the issue. Instead, the real obstacle has been the need for staff time to regularly replace (rotate) videotapes, and to move tapes to off-site locations. Of course, the cost escalates if a camera will be monitored in real-time by a staff person.  (A camera that simply records for six hours, then rewinds and re-records over the same tape, is only useful if the tape is removed within a few hours after an event captured by the camera.)

Public Webcams: There are now thousands of “webcams” around the world, operating operate 24 hours a day so that anyone can view activity in many public places (and sometimes in normally private places). These webcams remain novelties in most cases: I can check to see what the weather looks like at the beach in Santa Cruz, California, or at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii. (See Yahoo’s list of beach cams.)

Day Care Webcams: For worried parents, a number of private day-care centers have installed surveillance cameras in the day care center, and parents can view the camera signals in real-time, to monitor their children and the staff entrusted with the children’s care.

Cost of webcam technology for surveillance: Using one or more “web cams” for private (or public) surveillance is the new trend. For under $250, I bought a complete package from, including three “wireless” cameras and a receiver with a USB computer link. Attaching this setup to my computer, I could rotate between and capture images from each of three cameras, storing the images to a hard disk. If the computer is also configured as an internet server (with an “always-on” connection to the internet, at a cost of $50 to $150 per month), then the images can be viewed from any remote location. Storage remains an issue, especially if real-time video is being captured: this setup captures gigabytes of image files every day.

This subject is fascinating, and I can think of dozens of frightening applications: imagine a rapist or pedophile tapping into webcams to identify potential victims. Imagine the use of public cameras by law enforcement to intensely track all activity by members of a minority group, to allow “100% enforcement” of all laws against members of that group.  (Imagine, instead, the use of public and private cameras to detect incidents of official misconduct.)  Imagine a camera installed in your cubicle or workstation, so that your boss can watch you at any time during the day, without you knowing when they are watching. Imagine a television in your home with its own camera that’s always on, and which could be used by the government to watch you at any time, to detect any non-conforming behavior. (Oops, that last one is straight from 1984 .)

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