New York City is creating a massive video surveillance infrastructure, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union report released today.

The proliferation of video surveillance cameras in the absence of legal or regulatory constraint, the NYCLU said, has profound implications for basic rights and liberties.

The report, "Who's Watching? Video Camera Surveillance in New York City and the Need for Public Oversight," documents a sharp increase in the number of video surveillance cameras -- both publicly owned and privately owned -- on Manhattan streets.

A 1998 study conducted by the NYCLU identified 2,397 video surveillance cameras visible from street level in Manhattan. Today's report documents the locations of the same number of surveillance cameras in Greenwich Village and Soho alone. It also shows the locations of 292 surveillance cameras in Central Harlem, where cameras literally line 125th Street.

"Cameras are popping up on building facades, storefronts and light poles," said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director. "To the untrained eye these cameras are often hard to see. But their presence has significant implications for the rights of privacy, speech, and association."

Unregulated video surveillance technology has already led to abuses in New York City, including the Police Department's creation of visual dossiers on people engaged in lawful street demonstrations and the voyeuristic videotaping of individuals' private and intimate conduct.

"Public officials have yet to consider the impact of this technology on basic rights and liberties," said Robert A. Perry, NYCLU Legislative Director. The report comes as City Council members push to mandate surveillance cameras in bars and night clubs by passing the so-called "Nightlife Safety Initiative," the MTA moves to install cameras in buses without substantial privacy protections for the riders who will be captured on camera, and the NYCLU itself returns to court to challenge the NYPD's policy of archiving video images of individuals engaged in lawful public demonstrations.

Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector Thomas J. Nestel, who in 2005 conducted a study of police surveillance policies and practices in the 50 largest cities in the United States, joined the NYCLU at its press conference to comment on video surveillance technology and the need for protections in cities nationwide.

"In order to prevent abuses that could endanger individual liberties, video surveillance systems must possess layers of protection," Nestel said. "Written guidelines, training, adequate supervision, registration processes, image release policies and legislative penalties for misuse should serve as the minimum standard for operation."

The NYCLU takes the position that the City Council should not utilize or mandate video surveillance cameras without undertaking a comprehensive analysis that establishes

  • the scope and purpose of video surveillance cameras;
  • procedures for training and supervising personnel who operate or maintain cameras;
  • clear rules and procedures regarding retention, storage and destruction of images;
  • explicit prohibitions of unlawful video surveillance practices; and
  • penalties for violators of those prohibitions.

Former Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields noted: "Despite holding public hearings, many essential questions remain unanswered regarding the regulations, policies, training and clearly defined procedures in the installation and use of video cameras. … [T]he Report's Recommendations would provide answers to the many questions, as well as establish integrity for implementation of such a program."

Click here for the NYCLU's report and a special website on video surveillance.

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The New York Civil Liberties Union is a state affiliate of the ACLU

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