Back to All Commentary

Op-Ed: City Video Surveillance May Carry High Privacy Cost (Buffalo News)

By John A. Curr III — A resident quoted in a recent Buffalo News article about the city’s new video surveillance system likened the cameras to candy, saying everybody wants more.

It’s an apt comparison. The unchecked proliferation of video surveillance can erode privacy the way a steady diet of candy rots teeth.

Before embracing 24-hour video surveillance of public streets, Buffalo residents should consider whether constant police monitoring is worth the loss of privacy.

Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson and other police officials tout the new and expensive surveillance system as a high-tech way to enhance public safety by deterring crime. But while video images may assist in some criminal investigations after the fact, there is little evidence to support the contention that video surveillance cameras actually deter crime.

Cameras aren’t a magic bullet. A recent report by the University of California Berkeley on San Francisco’s video surveillance system concluded that the system’s 68 cameras had no effect on burglaries, car theft or violent crime.

Police officials also say Buffalo’s state-of-the-art system gives them the ability to zoom in on license plates and capture crisp images of street corners with a twist of the joystick. Such an advanced system triggers serious concerns about the potential for abuse.

Personnel charged with operating video surveillance cameras must be properly trained and closely supervised so that those joysticks won’t be aimed at a bedroom window. The definition of improper or unethical behavior should be outlined and understood. The training should be reinforced with a testing element that indicates the need for further instruction.

The city must establish clear rules and procedures for retention, storage and destruction of video surveillance images, and for access to and dissemination of such video images. Abuse is inevitable without clear and enforceable rules limiting retention and disclosure of video surveillance footage. The police could create video dossiers on political protesters or even someone an individual rogue officer doesn’t like. The potential readily exists to amass archives of highly personal information about people’s daily activities.

Police officials should identify what areas and activities are off-limits to the surveillance. The department says residential windows are blocked from the system by special filters. But are commercial windows also off limits? What about the inside of passing vehicles? Can the cameras zoom in on the magazines or books a person is reading?

While awaiting answers to these questions, residents should also ask themselves whether spending $5 million on video surveillance boasting 100 cameras is wise when their own police commissioner acknowledges that the cameras are no substitute for patrol officers.

John A. Curr III is the director of the Western Regional Office of the New York Civil Liberties Union in Buffalo.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union