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Op-Ed: Private Cameras, Public Money (NY Daily News)

By Donna Lieberman

The news that a security company is using $1 million in public money to install 100 surveillance cameras on city lampposts in Borough Park and Midwood raises serious concerns about why a private firm is being allowed to operate like the NYPD.

It is understandable that these Brooklyn communities want additional security — but the arrangement sets a terrible precedent.

Surely, the project is well-intentioned. The entire city was shocked when an 8-year-old Orthodox boy, Leiby Kletzky, was abducted and murdered in Borough Park in the summer of 2011.

A year later, Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) and state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Nassau) announced the Leiby Kletzky Security Initiative — with a $1 million state grant to Agudath Israel, a nonprofit group that hired the private firm SecureWatch24 to operate the network.

The surveillance cameras were necessary, officials said, so residents would feel safe in the belief that such a horrible crime would never happen again.

Tragic events are often invitations to bad policy judgments. And that is what’s happening here.

First, there is no conclusive research establishing that cameras deter crime (though they do make it easier to solve some crimes after the fact).

Yet untold numbers of cameras have gone up around the city in the years since the 9/11 attacks in the belief they will do exactly that.

Meantime, the cameras catch New Yorkers, at all hours of the day, every day of the year, living their lives — doing everything from walking the dog to visiting a psychiatrist, going into a gay bar or enjoying a romantic interlude. These are all perfectly legal activities, yet we have no idea what becomes of the captured images.

In a 2006 report, the New York Civil Liberties Union documented the surge in cameras and found that there was little or no oversight, guidelines or training and little regard for New Yorkers’ fundamental rights to privacy, speech and association.

Seven years later, little has been done to monitor the mushrooming use of surveillance cameras, and many unanswered questions remain.

These 100 new ones in Brooklyn, and the video images they will produce, only add to those concerns.
But this particular partnership adds an additional layer of concern: In a city where it is illegal to hang even a campaign poster on a lamppost, why is SecureWatch24, a private company, being allowed to put up cameras on public property?

Handing off the responsibility of gathering and storing video surveillance to a private company without any public guidelines over what happens to the footage raises serious issues.

Hikind has said the NYPD will have access to the cameras after a crime, but must first make a formal request to SecureWatch24.

Does that make sense? Are there any rules limiting how footage will be stored and who has access? Are there are any safeguards against selective and wrongful use of the videos? Who owns the images? How was this company chosen?

Also troubling is the fact that this taxpayer-funded surveillance system is more about currying favor with a powerful political constituency than effective crime prevention or thoughtful allocation of scarce public safety dollars.

Answers to these questions and concerns have not been easy to get. The Police Department referred a reporter to SecureWatch24. Officials there did not respond to requests for comment by the press or the NYCLU.

New Yorkers have a right to expect that government or a private company isn’t maintaining a database of their innocent comings and goings.

We are all in favor of making Borough Park families feel safe after the tragic death of a child, but an unregulated, government-subsidized network of privately owned and operated cameras is not the solution.

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