• Center for Problem oriented policing

POP Center Responses Video Surveillance of Public Places, 2nd Ed. Page 5

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Managing Public Concerns

Some have suggested that with the growth of public-place CCTV and the already extensive network of private surveillance systems in the transport system, hospitals, commercial premises, schools, and so on, it is nearly impossible to escape surveillance.62 This may be so, but we are probably some way yet from the type of overwhelming global surveillance network described in novels such as George Orwell’s 1984.63 This does not mean a citywide or nationwide network of cameras maintaining surveillance on the public is a fictional idea to be dismissed: discussions have been held at U.S. federal government levels regarding the growth of cameras in the nation’s capital.64 Public anxiety is usually more focused on specific areas.

Covert Cameras 

Unlike overt cameras, which can be seen conducting surveillance of public areas, covert cameras are designed to be unseen. Although some consider covert cameras to be more intrusive, there are city managers who have used domed cameras (a semi-covert scheme) because they are deemed to be more discreet.65 Some might argue there is less accountability with covert cameras because the general public has no way to determine the target of the surveillance, and this leads to concerns about privacy and the right to know if we are being watched by the government.

Privacy and Legal Concerns 

In the United States, privacy issues related to the use of CCTV surveillance are first and foremost in regard to the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects a citizen from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. The emphasis is on the protection of people, not places. As a result, at least in terms of clearly public places, citizens cannot have an expectation of privacy. Surveillance of individuals in public places would therefore appear to be constitutionally acceptable.66 This interpretation stretches only so far. In the case of Katz v. United States67, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man convicted on evidence gleaned from an FBI electronic listening device fixed to the outside of a public telephone booth. As one concurring opinion pointed out, a court must determine whether a suspect had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his activities, and if so, would society be prepared to accept the privacy expectation as reasonable.68 Reasonable expectations of privacy tend to be subjective but for the purposes of simple video (not audio) surveillance of public space, the use of CCTV in the United States would appear to be on solid ground constitutionally. 

A number of cases support the use of technological devices to enhance the natural ability of vision and hearing police officers could employ on the street if they were there in person. It is likely the courts would not look so positively on surveillance technology that is able to intrude where a police officer could not reasonably expect to be able to see. Future video surveillance equipment that employs x-ray technology to examine inside and under clothing may violate Fourth Amendment protections. 

More generally, concerns have been voiced in regard to the use of CCTV as a surveillance mechanism in public-order situations.69 For example, some people expressed anxiety after New York City officials declared a desire to increase the number of cameras in operation before the 2004 Republican National Convention.70 It would therefore seem prudent to stress to the public that a CCTV system is in place as a problem-oriented solution to an existing crime problem. 

In summary, public agencies wishing to install CCTV systems in public places should consider these two key points: 

  • The area under surveillance should cover only clearly public areas.
  • Surveillance equipment can use zoom, tilt, and pan to enhance video capture, and enhanced microphones to detect sound. However, technology that is able to intrude beyond reasonable limits of audio and visual capability may be constitutionally questionable. 

This guide is not intended to provide advice on the legality of particular CCTV systems. Implementers should seek legal advice in their local area early in the process if they have concerns about the legality of introducing CCTV.71 

Citizens may be especially wary of privacy concerns if there are no policies or guidelines for operating the system.72 One of the easiest ways to reduce privacy and legal concerns is to have clear policies and guidelines such as those discussed previously. This will help reduce citizens’ fears related to privacy concerns and can garner more support for CCTV systems. Involving the public in planning the system and educating them about it can also achieve this aim.

Ownership of Images 

The public is unlikely to support CCTV if there is a risk that video of them shopping on a public street when they should be at work will appear on the nightly news. With the increase of social media, residents may also be fearful that unethical officers will sell CCTV videos online or blackmail them.73 Therefore, a policy should exist that covers when recorded images are released to the police, media, or other agencies in the criminal justice system as well as consequences for inappropriate release. Releasing video footage for any reason other than to achieve legitimate police objectives is not recommended. Footage kept for lengthy periods may be obtained by citizens who file public-record requests.74 Therefore, policies should also be developed about how long footage is stored or kept. 

Marginalized Populations 

The public may also be concerned that marginalized populations will be targeted by CCTV systems which may ultimately increase their contact with the criminal justice system. One concern is that racial bias will impact camera operators and certain groups will be targeted based on who they are rather than on what they are doing.75 Similarly, there is concern that homeless individuals will unfairly become the targets of CCTV systems.76 Again, the best way to address these concerns is through having specific policies related to who and what will be deemed suspicious and thereby justify police intervention.

Public-Private System Integration 

One cost-saving option for departments is to integrate a public system with private CCTV systems. This could involve video-security systems used by businesses or private citizens. Camera systems have become more affordable. Some police departments have formed partnerships whereby businesses purchase the cameras and equipment, and the police department monitors the feed.77 This partnership reduces public expenses while enhancing the police response to suspicious activity. 

A more common integrated system involves police working with private citizens who have video surveillance at their homes, most commonly in the form of doorbell cameras. Although originally promoted as a way to stop package thefts, their affordability has led to increased demand for them.78 The systems are designed to be easy to capture and share videos. Knowledge of increased presence of cameras and the ease of sharing the information can act as a deterrent to potential offenders. Once a crime occurs, having access to these videos allows officers to gather information that may help identify suspects, gather vehicle information and circumstantial evidence, and provide insight into the mode of operation.79 As a result, several police departments have launched programs whereby residents can register their home video cameras. These programs are voluntary, and police do not have access to the feeds in real time but rather only obtain what the homeowner is willing to share.80 Databases of camera locations are created, and if an incident happens near a residence, the police can ask for access to the footage.81 Essentially, it creates another resource that police can tap into without having to spend money on cameras in residential areas, and saves time that would have otherwise been spent canvassing the neighborhood. 

Some camera companies such as Ring list on their device control centers their partnerships with police departments and these departments can work with Ring to request footage from a specific owner.82 Ring currently has a relationship with over 600 police departments.83 If a department can receive footage from multiple homeowners in an area, they can map a suspect’s steps through the neighborhood and retrace the route, looking for evidence.84 Privately gathered surveillance footage is also not subject to Fourth Amendment or other constitutional issues which allows for the use of the footage without added worries about privacy concerns. One thing about these systems that warrants caution is the ease of sharing means residents may post videos online or send them to other media outlets without contacting the police first, which could jeopardize investigations or promote retaliation or vigilantism.85 Therefore, departments seeking to embrace these systems should have campaigns or education programs informing residents of the importance of coming to the police first with the videos. 

Future Systems 

Implementers should be aware that technology is always on the march, and a number of particular innovations are imminent. 

Backscatter low-level x-ray imaging is a technology that provides the potential to see through clothing and detect weapons and other prohibited materials.86 Facial recognition systems require a link to another computer system within a police department, such as a database containing photographs of wanted individuals. A facial recognition system tied to an existing bank of 140 cameras was first used in East London (UK) in 1998. In order to enhance facial recognition, some new 3D surveillance systems are being developed which may allow for better comparison to suspects in custody.87 In addition to facial recognition, some programs can recognize other human characteristics such as walking or running gaits.88 The newer stereo-photogrammetric video surveillance system is a low cost, easy-to-implement, and minimally invasive system that can determine the size, shape, and location of any object. All that is needed are two coupled cameras and commercially available photogrammetric software which does not require any special skills to operate. The cameras only have to be calibrated once and the system is set.89 

Beyond their use to identify specific fugitives, the next generation of CCTV camera images may also be analyzed by problem-recognition systems. Unlike basic motion-detection systems (which activate a camera when a sensor is tripped), problem-recognition systems are software programs that interpret video images from a CCTV camera. The program attempts to identify problems such as potential robberies or street brawls by seeking out unusual characteristics or patterns in digital images. They can also be programmed to identify out-of-place articles, such as abandoned packages or weapons.90 This technology is helpful for passive systems, especially if the problem recognition is coupled with an enhancement in image quality.91 Some cities are also considering the introduction of cameras with systems that can identify the source of firearm activity or 911-call locations and automatically train their cameras on the source of that activity.92 Increased integration with private systems is also likely to continue. All of these next-generation systems will carry with them particular issues in terms of police response, the public’s perception of safety, and may also influence the public’s perception of the government’s intrusion into private life. 

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