By Stuart Kaplan

The pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers walking casually through the site of the Boston Marathon bombing bomb attack may well be the iconic image from that tragedy. Taken mostly by private security cameras that were aimed at the streets near the site of the attack, these images played a significant role in the eventual apprehension of the alleged bombers. Due to their wide distribution on television and in newspapers the images quickly became important elements in the ensuing discussion about methods for protecting the public from terrorism. Shortly after the bombing Boston’s police commissioner called for adding more police surveillance cameras and camera-equipped drones. A national public opinion survey taken a week later reports that less than 20 percent of Americans oppose the use of surveillance cameras in public places.

Thus, one effect of the horrible terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon may be to accelerate the movement to institute what several ACLU spokespersons have called a “total surveillance society” in which blanket video coverage of public space is integrated with facial recognition technology and data obtained from law enforcement monitoring of email and phone communication. Although images from cameras installed by non-governmental entities played a central role in the investigation of the Boston attack, those operated by law enforcement agencies pose a greater potential threat to privacy because they are likely to be part of a system that integrates cameras with other surveillance tools, such as drones, automatic license plate readers, and monitoring of phones and email.

It is certainly timely for us to ask what are the potential drawbacks and dangers of investing public resources in the technology of blanket surveillance, as well as the possible misconceptions regarding its effectiveness. Here is a very brief summary of some of the negative implications:

The problem of false positives. The logic of dragnet surveillance inevitably leads to ever-greater data collection on innocent people. As Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst for the ACLU, points out “the volume of false positives is always going to dwarf real alarms” because of the impossibility of achieving highly precise monitoring. A lot of completely innocent people are likely to be flagged as at least provisionally suspicious. That typically leads the authorities to attempt to collect even more data in order to improve the success rate.

People lose their freedom to be anonymous in public space. The ability to act anonymously in public is a cherished tradition in free societies. Even though we know that other persons might observe us, we typically have an idea of who is watching and can act accordingly. That quality of public space is lost when the observer is a surveillance camera.

Studies of the effectiveness of surveillance cameras have yet to demonstrate that they significantly reduce crime. British law enforcement agencies have installed camera systems that are more extensive than those in large American cities, at least at present.  However research on the effectiveness of those systems has failed to find a significant reduction in crime that could be ascribed to the cameras. The one exception is property crime, such as automobile theft. But there is no evidence that the surveillance systems reduced violent crime. In Chicago, where police can tap into a network of over 10,000 cameras, the arrest rate attributed to the camera system is less than 1% of the total police arrests in a recent three-year period.

Placing unwarranted faith in technology to reduce threats to public safety can lead us to ignore alternative solutions to the problem. Surveillance of all public space in large urban areas is extraordinarily costly. And, as noted above, its effectiveness is unproven. By contrast, there are several studies demonstrating that less costly alternatives such as adding street lighting and increasing law enforcement personnel can significantly reduce crime.

What can be done to stop the advance of the “surveillance state” or at least to mitigate those aspects that are most threatening to privacy? The Fourth Amendment is not much help at this point because the “search” takes place in public spaces and the Supreme Court has consistently held that people have very limited expectations of privacy there. However, it may be fruitful to work with local authorities and state legislatures to regulate the use of surveillance technology. For example, the ACLU of Oregon has sponsored legislation to regulate the use of surveillance drones by the police. The ACLU of Oregon has also asked the Portland City Council to institute privacy safeguards regarding the use of automatic license plate recognition cameras.

In the aftermath of a senseless and tragic act of terrorism like the Boston Marathon bombing, proposals to greatly increase law enforcement’s surveillance capabilities, even to the point of achieving around the clock blanket monitoring of large amounts of public space, may seem like a rational and wise response. But it is precisely at times like this, when fear and emotion run high, that it is necessary to give very thoughtful consideration to the potentially negative implications and unanticipated consequences of such an idea. We should ask ourselves if we truly want to live in a society where the video surveillance cameras are everywhere in public space, always on, and interconnected with vast reservoirs of personal information.

For further reading:

1.  Rushin, S. (2011, Fall) The judicial response to mass police surveillance. Univ. of Illinois Journal of Law, Technology & Police, 281.

2.  Schlosberg, M. & Ozer, N. (2007) Under the Watchful Eye, ACLU of California Report.

3.  Schwartz, A. (2013, January) Chicago’s video surveillance cameras: A pervasive and poorly regulated threat to our privacy. Northwestern Univ. Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, 47.

Stuart Kaplan is a member of the ACLU of Oregon Education Committee and former ACLU of Oregon board president.