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Warning sign

Public cameras draw ire of privacy experts

March 29, 1996
Web posted at: 3:00 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Carl Rochelle

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Around the world, as both crime and technology become more prevalent, officials find themselves relying more and more on video surveillance to extend the long arm of the law.

And as cameras go up in more places, so do the concerns about invasion of privacy. Do the potential abuses of video surveillance and the pictures it produces, detractors worry, outweigh its benefits?

"This is technology that cuts both ways," said David Boyd of the National Institute of Justice. "It can provide lots of security for people, lots of peace of mind. But at the same time, in the wrong hands, it can be badly abused."

Caught in the act

About 80 towns in the United Kingdom use video surveillance. But at least one aspect of this has caused controversy -- surveillance tapes, such as one called "Caught in the Act," are now available to the public in London video stores. (1.1M QuickTime movie)

Used properly, video cameras help expose wrongdoing. In South Carolina recently, a state trooper was fired after a video camera in his unmarked patrol car captured him shoving and cursing at a Florida woman he stopped for speeding.

But in everyday situations, the prospect of pervasive cameras is raising some eyebrows. Cameras perched 15 feet above street level in Baltimore canvass every square foot of a six-block area downtown, allowing police in a nearby kiosk to monitor people's activities.

Sam Ringhold of the Baltimore Police Department said the city's residents don't mind the intrusion. "They don't mind if Big Brother is watching a little more to ensure they are safe, because crime is the No. 1 issue," he said.

The police in Baltimore hope to expand the six-week-old program if the experiment proves successful. Others are leery of even the pilot program, though, and even more so of an expanded effort.

Susan Goering of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, wonders where the surveillance will stop. (128K AIFF sound or 128K WAV sound)

Programs elsewhere have had mixed results. Dave Banisar, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said cameras failed to deter crime in Times Square when New York officials tried the tactic there. When officials in New Jersey put cameras in subway stations there, Banisar said, crimes actually increased.

Tacoma, Washington is one success story. Police officers there said people used to buy and sell drugs openly on the streets. Since cameras have been installed, the police said, the activity has virtually stopped.

Some experts believe that moving the cameras into places like Tacoma only pushed the crime elsewhere. And the questions raised by the cameras go far beyond their crime-fighting efficacy, these experts say.

"What it does to our society is both frightening and, I think, humiliating to a society that feels it has to monitor the every movement of its fellow members," said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal. "It has created a society that relies too much on technology and not enough on trust."


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