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The Video Surveillance Debate
Security, Privacy Concerns Weighed in Wake of Sept. 11

listen Listen to Jad Abumrad's report on New York surveillance.

listen Listen to Margot Adler's report on the Justice Talking debate.

more Listen to the complete Justice Talking debate.

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment... You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. -- George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four

Surveillance camera

Surveillance camera on New York's Fifth Avenue.
Photo: NYC Surveillance Camera Project

Feb. 25, 2002 -- It hangs over Times Square, looking more like a street lamp than what it really is: a police video surveillance camera that can swivel 360 degrees and zoom in close enough to read a Broadway ticket in a scalper's hand 50 feet away.

As Jad Abumrad reports for Morning Edition, the camera and thousands of others like it in New York City and millions across the country are at the center of an escalating debate: is the use of such devices to combat crime and terrorism worth the loss of privacy and other guaranteed constitutional freedoms?

Abumrad's report on Monday's program, along with a Justice Talking discussion moderated by NPR's Margot Adler on Tuesday's show, examine an issue that has come into sharper focus since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Airport surveillance photo

A surveillance photo shows World Trade Center terrorism suspects Mohamad Atta and Abdul Aziz Al-Omari at the Portland, Maine, airport, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Photo: FBI

Joseph Atick, chief executive officer of Visionics Corp., says the attacks might have been prevented. Visionics makes face-recognition software that can be used to identify suspects by comparing their photos to databases. Atick says that three of the 19 suspects in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were on government "watch lists." The plot might have been foiled if sophisticated technology had been in use and those three men had been intercepted when they entered the United States from Canada, Atick says.

In Washington, D.C., a police command center features 22 video monitors that oversee a network linking hundreds of government video cameras positioned at National Airport, along the capital's streets, in subway stops, at federal agencies and schools.

Video surveillance systems using closed-circuit television are being deployed in more locations around the world. In England, the police has used CCTV for years, and officials claim a dramatic drop in crime as a result. In one recent example, a London police report says suspects in a robbery at a park "were kept in view on CCTV for several minutes until officers arrived and took three youths into custody."

Privacy experts worry about the new systems' Orwellian implications. Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said during the Justice Talking debate that photos of suspected terrorists aren't the only ones that will end up in government databases. He noted that when Tampa police used face recognition technology during last year's Super Bowl, photos of local criminals were included in the screening process.

Control room

Video control rooms are used to monitor closed-circuit cameras.
Photo: Visionics Corp.

"I predict today that the most likely digital images to end up in the database of face recognition technology used in airports in the United States will be digitized... photographs from drivers in the United States," Rotenberg said. "That is the easiest data to get and that's what we're going to be using in the future."

But Robert Castelli, a 22-year New York State Police veteran and security consultant who also participated in the Justice Talking debate, said the potential for harm in surveillance technology may be exaggerated. "When one goes to a public stadium such as the Super Bowl, where the Goodyear blimp is flying overhead and every TV station in the Western world is photographing the event, I think it would be somewhat ludicrous to think that we expect to be considered private while sitting there on the 50-yard line."

Rotenberg agreed that the new technology has an important role to play in law enforcement. "But as we make use of technology, we cannot leave constitutional safeguards behind."

Previous NPR Coverage

listen All Things Considered report on Washington, D.C., surveillance cameras

listen All Things Considered report on police cameras at school

listen Talk of the Nation discussion on surveillance and privacy

Other Resources

Justice Talking

New York Civil Liberties Union's NYC Surveillance Camera Project

Electronic Privacy Information Center

FBI research paper on computer-assisted facial image identification

International Association of Chiefs of Police report on the use of video cameras in law enforcement (Adobe Acrobat plug-in required)

Security Industry Association guidelines for closed circuit television for policing (Adobe Acrobat required)

The Surveillance Camera Players