2015 POP Conference
Oct 19-21, 2015 Portland, OR

Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Powerd by University at Albany, SUNY
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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 (unregulated) surveillance49. 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 50. This does not mean a city-wide or nationwide network of cameras maintaining surveillance on the public is a fictional idea to be dismissed: discussions have been held at federal government levels regarding the growth of cameras in the nation's capital51. 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 discreet52. 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 Constitutional 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 law enforcement and other government agencies. 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. This interpretation stretches only so far. In the case of Katz v. United States53, 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 reasonable54. 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 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 potentially fall foul of Fourth Amendment protections.

More generally, concerns have been voiced in regard to the use of CCTV as a surveillance mechanism in public order situations55. 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 Convention56. 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 if they have concerns about the legality of introducing CCTV.

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. Therefore, a policy should exist that covers when recorded images are released to the police, media, or other agencies in the criminal justice system. Releasing video footage for any reason other than to enhance the criminal justice system is not recommended.

Future Systems

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

Two systems are undergoing rapid development. Backscatter low-level x-ray imaging is a technology that provides the potential to see through clothing and detect weapons and other prohibited materials57. 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.

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 weapons58. Some cities are also considering the introduction of cameras with systems that can identify the source of firearm activity and automatically train their cameras on the source of that activity. 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