Under surveillance: Cities struggle to balance safety, privacy

Massachusetts town opts for camera with 'eyelids' that close when not needed

Police departments around the country are steadily installing surveillance cameras to help prevent crime, often funded by grants from the federal Homeland Security Department, but at what point does public safety cross the line into violating privacy? Is there a way to balance the two?

It’s an old debate that hasn’t slowed down, and among the questions have been where to place cameras and who should be able to monitor them. But while the debate goes on, cameras keep cropping up in surveillance systems that run the gamut of coverage.

Victorville, Calif., recently activated 31 cameras in high-crime areas, reported that city’s Daily Press. Feeds are monitored by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s office.

Lancaster, Pa., last year opted for full coverage. The small, low-crime-rate city in the heart of Amish country installed a system of 165 cameras — more than Philadelphia or Boston has — monitored not by law enforcement but by the nonprofit Community Safety Coalition, reported the Guardian. The American Civil Liberties Union says it objects on that grounds that that citizens would monitor the system and that it covers the whole town, not just high-crime areas.

At least one city has had its doubts about using cameras. Last year, the Cambridge, Mass., City Council stopped the activation of eight surveillance cameras over privacy concerns and questions about how images from the cameras would be used, David Abel reported in the Boston Globe.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Neighborhood Watch program in Ramsey County, Minn., invites residents to visit its WebCop website, where they can watch live feeds from 14 surveillance cameras and alert police if they see anything suspicious.

The Police Department in Marshfield, Mass., seems to be trying to split the difference with the deployment of a dozen SituCam Privacy Protecting Cameras, which can remain closed except during certain times of day or when activated by an alert, Russell Nichols writes in Government Technology.

Each of the cameras, made by SituCon Systems, has an "eyelid" that can be kept closed except for assigned times of the day or night, Nichols writes. During an emergency or other incident, authorized personnel could activate a wireless alert, which would open the eye and give dispatchers information about the incident.

The significance of a physical eyelid is that people would know when a camera is recording, according SituCon. They would also know that they’re not being recorded around the clock.

A camera that blinks could help ease some worries over privacy. But the ACLU, while not opposing cameras in high-risk areas, has still voiced concerns over who controls the cameras and what is done with the images, Nichols reports.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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