Surveillance Cameras Draw Mixed Reaction in DC
LYNN NEARY, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
It's almost 60 years since the novel "1984" was published. Writer George Orwell created a vivid vision of a future where there was no such thing as privacy.
Unidentified Man: Big Brother is watching you, a caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston's own.
NEARY: Big Brother may remain a fictional character, but with the proliferation of surveillance cameras in cities around the world, some wonder whether Orwell's predictions are coming to pass. Just last week officials in the District of Columbia announced a plan to create a network of 5,000 surveillance cameras, which would allow one central agency to oversee cameras already operating in the city's schools, public housing developments and high-crime areas.
Currently D.C. police have 74 cameras in neighborhoods throughout the city.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
NEARY: At the police department's command information center, officers use a variety of tools to monitor crime from low-tech TVs to high-tech systems like the Shot Spotter, which can detect gunshots. Captain Mike Eldridge demonstrates how it works.
Mr. MIKE ELDRIDGE (Captain): So we had a gunshot in Rhode Island Avenue.
(Soundbite of gunshots)
Mr. ELDRIDGE: Well, actually we just - that's an alarm. That's a real-live alarm that we need to respond to. One moment.
NEARY: Eldridge also oversees the police-operated surveillance cameras in a room across the hall. A huge block of TV screens takes up an entire wall of this room. Images of the streets of D.C. flash by in a dizzying array. Eldridge says officers are trained to pick up suspicious activity in the images.
Mr. ELDRIDGE: Loitering behaviors, people going back to secret locations for stashes for drugs. I mean, quite frankly it's very obvious that someone's assaulting somebody or they're, God forbid, there's a gun. I mean, there's been, unfortunately, those instances have been caught on our cameras and they've been held as evidence.
NEARY: Do you know the degree to which these cameras are successful in preventing crime?
Mr. ELDRIDGE: Yes. We did an annual report and for 2006-2007, within 250 feet of a camera placement, crime was down on average 19 percent. And I think what the citizens have told us is actually they help reduce the fear of crime.
NEARY: When the city expects demonstrations or a visit by a major figure, like the Pope, this room is filled with both federal and local law enforcement agents monitoring the screen.
Unidentified Man: 2427 18th Street, 10-4.
NEARY: On this day there is just one police officer: Nicolas Nikitakis(ph). He sits in a corner of the room monitoring images not on the big screens but on a small computer.
Mr. NICOLAS NIKITAKIS (Police Officer): You just keep your eye out for any kind of suspicious activity. If you get any calls in the area, you can take that camera, move it to where the call's coming from. If there was an alarm coming from this building here, we could stop the camera, go specifically to that one and we could check the entrances and see if any of them are open, especially late at night. Any cars are parked out front that shouldn't be. Just helps us get maybe a tag number in case we can't get there before the car leaves.
NEARY: Yeah, how close in can you get? Like, when you say you can get a tag number, how close in can you zoom? Wow. You can get right in there.
From across the street the camera shows a clear image of a license plate. Frequently the officers, who monitor the cameras 40 hours a week, will focus on a particular neighborhood when a dispatcher notifies them about suspicious activity. But Officer Nikitakis says they'll browse through images of neighborhoods where they suspect a crime might be committed.
Ms. NIKITAKIS: Like, 14th and W, that area I'll look around on my own every once in a while just because I know between this corner and this corner there's an alley behind it that a lot of people go in and out of during the whole drug activity we've been witnessing. So I'll check it out and I'll just look to see if there's people up here. If they're not up here, I'll check down there.
NEARY: 14th and W is a D.C. neighborhood in transition - expensive condominiums stand opposite abandoned houses. We went to the neighborhood the next day to see if we could find the camera. D.C. resident Ann Lyko(ph), who opposes the surveillance cameras, joined us.
We know that there's a police camera here, Ann, because we were at the police department yesterday and we saw the camera looking down the street right where are now. So there...
Ms. ANN LYKO (Resident, D.C.): Well, there's one right across the street at the corner. You could see a sign hanging off of the traffic pole where the traffic light is. And a round camera with sort of a glass bulb, which is the actual camera part hanging down below the sign.
NEARY: Oh, I see it. Let's go up there. Let's get closer.
Along the way, we stopped to talk to people about the camera. Many didn't know it was there, and some, like Matt Brower(ph), had some concerns about the cameras throughout the city.
Mr. MATT BROWER (Resident, D.C.): Who's watching the tape and what is it being used for and what could it be used for? Just general trust - why does the government need to watch people on the street?
NEARY: But most, like Mabel Morgan, said they were glad to have the camera in the neighborhood.
Ms. MABEL MORGAN (Resident, D.C.): It can't hurt; it can help. You know, if something should happen. Many things happen because we're living in critical times. And we do deal with different situations, you know? And so if you're an honest person and you're trying to do the right thing, it can't hurt you. If anything, it can help.
NEARY: But Ann Lyko thinks the cameras have a placebo effect, leading people to believe they're preventing crime when in fact there's not much concrete evidence of that in cities around the world.
Ms. LYKO: And what is often found is what these cameras do is just displace crime, displace people too. That you move away from having the camera cover everything you're doing and get out of range. I know in my neighborhood I try to avoid the streets where the cameras are.
NEARY: Is that your main objection to these kinds of cameras, that they violate privacy in a public place in some way?
Ms. LYKO: Well, there's something about being an American. Privacy is important. Sort of personal freedoms are important. And when you start having massive surveillance systems, as an American I just am flabbergasted that this is what's been happening.
NEARY: The debate around surveillance cameras often breaks down into simple terms: privacy versus safety.
Ms. SHARON BRADFORD FRANKLIN (Senior Counsel, The Constitution Project): It shouldn't be a choice between privacy and safety. It doesn't have to be a choice between privacy and safety.
NEARY: Sharon Bradford Franklin is senior counsel of the Constitution Project. It has developed guidelines to help communities that are considering the use of surveillance cameras. Franklin says the public should be involved in the process and there needs to be assurances that the cameras will not infringe on civil rights.
Ms. FRANKLIN: We agree that if a camera is trained on actual criminal conduct and that is a tool for the police and they want to use that evidence, that's fully appropriate. What we want to make sure is that the camera systems are designed in a way that they're going to be focused on that law enforcement objective, that they're going to be most likely to be actually picking up the criminal conduct and not just cutting such a broad swath and then having this ability to engage in fishing expeditions or to really be overly intrusive of people's privacy rights, chilling their first amendment rights and so forth.
NEARY: So, what would you say to those who really are concerned about civil liberties who might want to see these cameras done away with altogether? Are you sort of saying that's not going to happen? That's not the future?
Ms. FRANKLIN: Yes. I mean, the reality is that I think that ship has sailed. I think cameras are already in place in many communities and more are going to turn to them. So we think the much more practical and productive avenue is to try to make communities try and think through these issues and institute protection for privacy rights and civil liberties along with the camera systems from the get-go.
NEARY: What are some of the civil liberties that we are talking about? Is it simply a right to privacy, and do you have a right to privacy in a public space?
Ms. FRANKLIN: Two very important questions. Right to privacy is certainly a big one here. And the common doctrine that most people know is that you don't have a reasonable expectation to privacy in a public place. Well, the reality, though, is that this is an area in which the law has really lagged behind the developments in technology.
And if you look at what is really just around the corner, we could easily have in the near future a system of fully networked digital cameras where you can create a digital database, tag given images with identifiable information and search that database for a given individual and create a digital dossier of that individual's movements throughout the community.
And if people think about, is that what I view when I say "no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place," that's a very different image.
NEARY: Do you think people really are thinking about this that hard at this point though?
Ms. FRANKLIN: Most people out there, no. I think that most people don't give this enough thought and don't recognize the real technological capabilities that are out there and how it really might affect them. A lot of people say, well, I have nothing to hide. But they don't think through how comfortable they really would be with someone having a full digital record of their activities and things that they really probably would like to keep private, even though fully lawful.
NEARY: Sharon Bradford Franklin is senior counsel of the Constitution Project.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.