Public Surveillance: Security vs. Privacy, Part 1

Closed-circuit TV cameras keep watch in many metropolitan areas. While police and community activists say the cameras make their streets safer, some residents and civil liberties groups say they feel their privacy is threatened.

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Many police departments across the country are as strapped for cash as the communities they serve. This leaves some neighborhoods chronically underpatrolled and some citizens looking for a sense of safety. From Long Beach, California, to New York City, residents, business owners and police departments are turning to surveillance cameras for help, but some groups worry that the cameras' short-term impact on crime may not be worth the long-term effect on Americans' right to privacy. NPR's Allison Keyes has this report.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman's brows furrow as she examines a folder chronicling the organization's second report on surveillance cameras. In their first report in 1998, the NYCLU found almost 2,400 cameras being used by mostly private businesses throughout Manhattan. But Lieberman says there's been a dramatic increase since then. Volunteers examined 20 percent of the city and counted over 5,000 cameras in the southern portion alone. Lieberman says her organization wants people to wake up.

Ms. DONNA LIEBERMAN (New York Civil Liberties Union): The purpose of this project was to document just how much we have become a surveillance society, to help the public understand that you really can't go more than a couple of blocks without your movements being captured on videotape.

KEYES: New York City Police declined to comment for this story, but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority here is planning to spend more than $250 million to install cameras in the subway system. In Revere, an urban suburb on the north and east borders of Boston, Police Chief Terence Reardon says surveillance cameras are the eyes of police departments without the manpower to patrol cities against both crime and terrorism.

Chief TERENCE REARDON (Revere, Massachusetts): The cameras are very high tech. They're pan, tilt zoom, color in, low light, capable of seeing three miles out.

KEYES: But he says the concerns of organizations like the NYCLU that the technology could be abused are legitimate. He says his department is developing a policy to address those issues.

Chief REARDON: Just as you would anybody on the street be able to look and see something, the cameras will be able to look and see something. That is not illegal. It is not, any way, surreptitious. But at the same time, we plan on not only using police officers, but also, as I said, citizens to come in and act as volunteers.

KEYES: In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, signs mark the five cameras that watch over two nine-story public housing developments, but when the city Housing Authority put two cameras on the roof so that the surrounding neighborhood was also under surveillance, it didn't go over well.

Ms. JANE PUGLIESE THOMAS (Inner City Group): They thought that they were doing a good thing, but it patronized the neighborhood.

KEYES: Jane Pugliese Thomas is executive director of the Inner City Group, a non-profit community development corporation. She says cameras on the Housing Authority's property were fine.

Ms. THOMAS: But their decision to focus it on the Southeast Corridor without talking to us and the fact that this was a predominantly neighborhood really smacked of racism.

Mr. BOB SCHELLHAMER (Lancaster City Housing Authority): I'd take exception with that. That just is simply not true.

KEYES: Bob Schellhamer, executive director of the Lancaster City Housing Authority, insists there was an extended public process before the cameras were directed outside of its property. He also says race had nothing to do with the camera placement and that the Authority was only trying to help the neighborhood, as it has its residents.

Mr. SCHELLHAMER: And our residents love it. We're very in tune to personal safety and crime prevention and helping to solve a crime in and around public housing.

KEYES: For now, the cameras are focused only on the Housing Authority's property, but in Lancaster, as in many cities, the debate over who watches such cameras and what happens with the data is ongoing. Allison Keyes, NPR News, New York.

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