Big Brother: Are Surveillance Cameras Worth it?

After Times Square bombing attempt, security camera debate is revived.

ByKi Mae Heussner
May 06, 2010, 11:06 AM

May 7, 2010— -- In the aftermath of the attempted car bombing in Times Square, the debate surrounding the increasing use of surveillance cameras has once again moved to center stage.

Just days after Faisal Shahzad allegedly drove a bomb-equipped Nissan Pathfinder into the popular New York landmark, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and others called on the Obama administration to provide at least $30 million in additional funding for a surveillance program to blanket midtown Manhattan with security cameras.

"There is nothing more important than keeping New Yorkers safe from an attack. If anything was made clear on Saturday night, it's that New York is a target. We need to do everything in our power to deliver the funding to protect New Yorkers," Schumer said in a statement.

Although law enforcement officials and politicians insist that security cameras are a valuable tool for keeping the public safe, privacy advocates and some security experts say the cameras not only degrade privacy, but divert resources away from more effective approaches to security.

Soon after the failed bombing attempt Saturday, New York police reviewed footage from a reported 82 surveillance cameras trained on Times Square. But privacy advocates were quick to point out that the network of cameras did nothing to thwart the attack or immediately apprehend the suspect.

"Times Square is a good example of why these don't work," said John Verdi, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It's blanketed with cameras… and yet none of these cameras contributed to preventing the bombing."

Even though, intuitively, it makes sense that cameras would help prevent crimes or catch suspects, he said the data doesn't bear this out.

A 2009 study conducted by California's Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society examined the effectiveness of San Francisco's network of security cameras and found that they didn't reduce violent crime but helped reduce other crimes, such as pick-pocketing and theft.

Security Expert: Deterrent Effect Is There

A review published by the U.K. press in August 2009 called into question London's network of closed-circuit security cameras. According to the BBC, one crime per year is solved in London for every 1,000 cameras.But some security experts say surveillance cameras do indeed help deter crimes and help law enforcement with investigations.

"The deterrent effect is certainly there," said Thomas Sanderson, deputy director and senior fellow of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "In the post-attempt, post-attack phase, I think the cameras can be very useful."

For example, he said if a terrorist on the verge of an attack spots a camera, it could rattle him and force him to improvise, thereby increasing the chance of error and blowing the operation.

With respect to the New York bomber, he said, "If we got a clear picture of him, he would have been nailed faster and certainly at the airport." The suspect in the Times Square incident was pulled off a plane headed for the Mideast after U.S. Customs officials found his name on a passenger manifest.

Sanderson acknowledged that the cameras may compromise individuals' sense of freedom, but said they have demonstrated their effectiveness in the field.

In Iraq, he said, video footage from camera networks has helped track car bombers back to where they came from.

"We're able to take an awful lot of footage from a number of surveillance cameras and play back that route," he said.

Surveillance cameras played a key role in finding the men behind the 2005 bombings in London, Sanderson added.

"The more cameras you have, the more ability you have to trace the footsteps of a car bomber, the more chances you have of seeing the individual," he said.

Law enforcement officials say that since the 1960s, security cameras – both private and public – have been critical tools.

"If you don't think that you're under camera surveillance the minute you step out your door, you're not living in this century," said Lt. Bob Gillan, head of the homeland security unit for the Quincy, Mass., police.

"They're very effective for fighting crime," he said. "In some circumstances, it might be the only tool you have to get an investigation going."

Privacy Advocates: Does the Public Want Every Step Tracked and Stored?

In his own municipality, he said surveillance footage has helped track suspects from the scene of a crime directly to where they park their car at home.

And Gillan said that before launching attacks, terrorists study previous attempts and the locations that they target. Knowing they could be caught on camera in Times Square could make them think twice about attacking that location again.

"When they study [this recent attack], that'll serve as a deterrent," he said. "They'll go to a city that doesn't have those cameras."

Privacy advocates say that though the public knows that there isn't total privacy when they step outside their homes, there is still an expectation that their every step isn't captured on camera and preserved.

"With the surveillance cameras, it's the difference between someone who is in a public place and understands that there might be a momentary, ephemeral record of them being there and someone who has a permanent record of their travels and whereabouts stored by the government," said EPIC's Verdi. "It's a question of degrees and what folks are comfortable with."

The question looms even larger, he said, when surveillance networks can keep 24/7 records of individuals' activities and there's little proof that there's a security benefit.

Some civil libertarians say the technology has value, but argue that officials should be more transparent and willing to discuss the implications with the public.

"Surveillance cameras are a double-edged sword," said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. "They offer enormous benefits in helping us solve crimes, their value in preventing crimes has yet to be established. But it's essential when the government engages in surveillance that it acknowledges that there are privacy implications and take measures to reduce the risk harm."

As the city plans to blanket midtown and lower Manhattan with cameras, Lieberman said the public should be part of the discussion to determine privacy precautions, such as how long images are stored, how they are stored and who has access to them. While the public doesn't need to know every detail, she said it has the right to know about the nature and extent of surveillance.

The NYCLU has filed two lawsuits in New York City related to video surveillance and public access to information. She said both suits are pending.

Lieberman said the suits weren't intended to stop the surveillance plans, but to find out information.

"National security is an area where we can't afford to squander resources and just assume that what ought to work will. It's a serious issue, both in terms of what happens when we fail, or if we fail, and what happens to the privacy rights that are at the core of our democratic society."

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