The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is one of about a dozen departments nationwide that have a “real-time crime center,” or a high-tech surveillance hub.
There, police officers can access about 1,100 cameras located throughout the city — some of which have the power to zoom in and identify people’s faces from more than a block away. Others are license-plate-reader cameras posted on traffic lights. And about 500 of those are cameras that private groups own and voluntarily feed into the center.
St. Louis isn’t alone. In the past decade, many cities, including Washington, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, have installed significant numbers of police-operated surveillance cameras.
When St. Louis’ center opened in 2015, city leaders were excited about its crime-fighting possibilities.
Someone robs a bank. News outlets show the surveillance footage to the public. The police apprehend the robber. Victory for surveillance cameras.
But the cameras are on and recording when no one is committing crimes, too. Cameras are recording people as they shop, as they drive, and even as they walk through their neighborhoods. What St. Louis failed to look at six years ago, and still is struggling to control, is how best can they balance the needs of law enforcement against the privacy rights of innocent individuals.
Alicia Hernández, a community organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, is concerned about governments using the equipment to “spy on residents” who haven’t been implicated in criminal activity.
“The current laws do not protect you from these violations of your privacy and civil rights,” Hernández said.
Clearly laws have not kept up with rapidly expanding surveillance programs and without these laws, these programs are subject to abuse.
The ACLU identifies a number of ways these can, and have already, been misused.
Criminal abuse – Bad-apple cops using these cameras for criminal gain. They cited a case in Washington, D.C., where a cop using camera data on patrons of gay clubs, looked up license plate numbers of cars parked at the club and researched the backgrounds of the vehicles’ owners, and tried to blackmail patrons who were married.
Institutional abuse – Remember how federal and local governments in the 1960s and ’70s spied on political activists who were challenging racial segregation and the Vietnam War? Think how much damage video surveillance in the wrong hands could do.
Abuse for personal purposes – An investigation by the Detroit Free Press, for example, showed that a database available to Michigan law enforcement was used by officers to help their friends or themselves stalk women, threaten motorists after traffic altercations, and track estranged spouses.
Discriminatory targeting – In Great Britain, camera operators have been found to focus disproportionately on people of color. According to a sociological study of how the systems were operated, “Black people were between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population.”
LACK OF LIMITS AND LAWS
St. Louis is struggling now to set up limits on the use of their surveillance equipment and they’re not alone. This technology expanded so quickly that checks and balances to prevent the kinds of abuses identified above don’t always exist. What’s needed are limits on use of this technology and specific laws further controlling their use.
Consensus on Limits – As the ability of technology continues to expand, so will the use of surveillance equipment. One growing area of concern is facial recognition technology (FRT). In New York City, with over 30,000 surveillance cameras, FRT allows NYPD to track every individual who has been captured visually as they move throughout the city.
Amnesty International used 3D modeling to calculate the estimated distance by which an NYPD Argus camera could capture video footage processable by facial recognition software. Results showed cameras potentially could capture faces in high definition up to 650 feet (two blocks) away.
How much further might the limits of surveillance go. systems such as CCTV need to be subject to checks and balances. Because the technology has evolved so quickly, however, checks and balances to prevent the kinds of abuses outlined above don’t exist. Two elements in particular are missing:
Do you want cameras equipped to detect wavelengths outside the visible spectrum, allowing night vision or see-through vision? What about cameras augmented with other forms of artificial intelligence?
As long as there is no clear consensus about where to draw the line on surveillance to protect American values, the Orwellian future of books and movies could be upon us sooner than we like.
Enforceable laws for operation – The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution offers some protection against video searches conducted by the police, however there are currently no general, legally enforceable rules to limit privacy invasions and protect against surveillance cameras. For years there have been well-established rules governing the audio recording of individuals without their consent, which is probably why surveillance cameras never have microphones.
Laws for surveillance cameras would explore such issues as:
Are video signals being recorded?
Under what conditions can camera video be recorded?
How long should video be retained?
What are the criteria for access to archived video by other government agencies, or by the public?
How will the rules would be verified and enforced?
What punishments would apply to violators?
ST. LOUIS’ STRUGGLE
Five years after the installation of their police surveillance system, St. Louis is still trying to establish the limits and laws to control its use. With a population that is almost 50% Black, privacy advocates definitely want to make sure the law helps to ensure the equipment’s use is racially and economically neutral.
“We want to make sure there are clear guidelines and that there are clear consequences when somebody violates those provisions,” said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Marina Lowe.
Hernandez, the community organizer, agreed, saying, “We need guardrails and transparency in place as this rapidly encroaching, untested and unregulated technology sweeps across the nation.”