Newark Police Camera System Relies On Residents, Stirring Privacy Concerns To bolster safety, the high-crime New Jersey city is installing hundreds of cameras. But the new technology is raising civil liberties issues, as the footage is available to anyone with a cellphone.
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Newark Police Camera System Relies On Residents, Stirring Privacy Concerns

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Newark Police Camera System Relies On Residents, Stirring Privacy Concerns

Newark Police Camera System Relies On Residents, Stirring Privacy Concerns

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Newark, N.J., is taking the concept of a neighborhood watch to a whole new level. They've installed hundreds of cameras around the city to create a virtual block watch. But as New Jersey Public Radio's Karen Rouse tells us, some people don't want to be under surveillance.

KAREN ROUSE, BYLINE: Newark Mayor Ras Baraka says the new cameras replace the old system that was wiped out during Hurricane Sandy. He says these cameras are different.

RAS BARAKA: These cameras are going to be watched, they're going to be watched by our police department. But we're also recruiting our neighborhood and our residents to participate and engage with us to watch their neighborhoods as well.

ROUSE: But that engagement goes well beyond the residents. Newark's virtual patrol allows literally anyone on Earth with an email address and Internet connection to watch whatever activities the cameras capture - cars driving through intersections, a young woman leaving a corner store, kids hanging out on a street. Sixty-two cameras are already in operation. By January, there will be 300 that anyone, anywhere can watch, like Adam Schwartz. He's a senior lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties nonprofit in California. I called and talked him through the Newark Police Department website.

ADAM SCHWARTZ: All right, so I'm just creating my account.

ROUSE: And within seconds, he sees a list of locations for the cameras.

SCHWARTZ: So I can click on one of these cameras and then see what's going on.

ROUSE: Schwartz says such easy access to the cameras could have a chilling effect on civil liberties.

SCHWARTZ: There are people who if they are invited to go to a demonstration and they see that one of these blue cameras is up, they might decide they don't want to show up.

ROUSE: And it could put black and brown people at risk for being targeted.

SCHWARTZ: It's lower income and minority communities where these technologies are deployed, and they lead to more arrests.

ROUSE: It's a concern for Newarkers like Linda Carter and Josie Gonsalves. I asked them to meet up with me at Raman's Boulevard and Broad Street. That's one of the 62 blocks being monitored by a surveillance camera. We gathered in front of a tax office and watched on my iPhone as the cameras panned back and forth.

JOSIE GONSALVES: Those white things - those are the cameras? I can see his umbrella.


GONSALVES: I can see you.


LINDA CARTER: That's us.

GONSALVES: I see you and his umbrella.

CARTER: Here's my red coat.

ROUSE: After the initial thrill of spotting themselves on my iPhone via the Newark Police Department website, Carter expressed dread.

What do you think about that, being able to see yourself on a camera that anybody can log in?

CARTER: I'm very, very concerned. People are collecting information. It's like we're taking our power away as citizens because we don't get to opt out, and everybody else can use it for whatever reason, whether it's good or bad.

ROUSE: Gonsalves says it changes how Newarkers like her will carry themselves in public.

GONSALVES: We as citizens, the whole way in which we engage with each other, we're constantly watching ourselves, watching our neighbors, and everyone becomes a suspect.

ROUSE: Not everyone finds the cameras bewildering. Some residents say violent crimes like murder are still common, and the cameras add a layer of protection.

STEVE SURFARO: This is taking see something, say something to a whole other level.

ROUSE: Steve Surfaro is an official with the Security Industry Association, a trade group that represents companies that build security and surveillance systems. He said he doesn't think the resolution is clear enough to cause concern.

SURFARO: What you're able to do is to see people. You're able to see vehicles. You can see weather. But you can't really read license plates, and you can't really recognize faces.

ROUSE: He says the cameras can capture activities where the public can help, like spotting a fire or a crowd gathered around someone in distress. One downside, though, is that the public could misread what they're seeing, like mistaking someone handing off a book to someone else as a drug deal. Mayor Baraka says Newark is installing signs to let the public and the criminals know they're being watched. And he says that's not so unusual these days when cameras are in stores and on people's homes.

BARAKA: What we're trying to do is really compile and organize all of this to give us the opportunity to stay ahead of some of the violence and crime that's happening in the city.

ROUSE: So far, the city says more than 1,600 people have registered on the police department's website. That's 1,600 more sets of eyes watching the streets of Newark.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Rouse.

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