The Why Files The Why Files --

Video surveillance: Who is watching you, and why?
surveillance camera looks right

Who is watching you?

A Pennsylvania student just discovered that a built-in camera in a laptop issued by his high school is spying on him at home. He sues the school district, which required students to take the laptops, and forbade them from using others. The school says the video camera was set to activate if the laptop was stolen.

As public fears of crime and terrorism wax and wane, and as the price of technology continues to slide, public video surveillance is spreading fast, with mixed results:

A white sign with black letters reads 'Smile, you are being watched by our video surveillance camera.'
Photo courtesy Steve Furay
Does this sign, taken in a gas station, make you want to smile?

A crew of agents, presumably Israeli, assassinates a Hamas operative in Dubai - and members are caught on video tape at nearly every step. However, the surveillance fails to stop the killing or to nab the perpetrators.

The Los Angeles Police Department distributes a video showing burglars hauling loot from an apartment. LAPD hopes to identify and bust the "drill-lock burglars" with a little help from a little camera.

Last fall, seven current or former employees sued Wal-Mart over closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in a bathroom at a Pennsylvania Wal-Mart.

After 9/11, New York City began to install thousands of surveillance cameras, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg supports further cameras.  The city's Metropolitan Transit Authority also wants to add surveillance, but expansion plans have been hampered by costs and operational failures.

Without much public discussion, video cameras seem to be sprouting on every light pole. But does video surveillance deter crime or help catch criminals? Do we have a right to privacy in public? Have we entered a "surveillance society," where a "culture of disclosure" renders privacy unachievable or irrelevant?

How many cameras?

Video: YouTube
This footage of the July 7, 2005, London tube bombers was captured on June 28, less than two weeks prior to their act of terror. The video shows them entering the Luton station, where they traveled to King's Cross station. BBC News has more.

The capital of video surveillance is the United Kingdom, where, according to one estimate,1 5 million CCTV cameras are keeping track of 62 million people. American cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, have systems, as do numerous private businesses. In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union counted 4,200 cameras in the fraction of Manhattan south of 14th Street.

The only global number we could find on American video surveillance, dating to 2006,2 said "more than a million CCTV cameras are now in use in the United States, with the number rapidly increasing."

We phoned the ACLU (disclaimer: the author is a member) for its estimate on the census of U.S. CCTV cameras, but Jay Stanley, education director for the Technology and Liberty Program, told us he did not know. "It's a safe assumption that cameras will continue to grow as the technology gets cheaper; there are few regulations on it."

A white and black camera with attached wires mounted onto the outside of a red brick building

The government is getting more avidly into the act, Stanley says, and although private systems were an invasion of privacy, "the effects were limited because the video was held in different hands. Having a central monitoring system makes it easier to centrally track individuals as they go across the lines from one camera to another."

Indeed, as various cities build video command posts, the Department of Homeland Security has set up 72 "data fusion centers," to "try to connect the dots among suspicious data, to anticipate terrorist attacks in advance," says Torin Monahan, associate professor of human and organizational development and medicine at Vanderbilt University. "They are tapping into video feeds, data records, to monitor people doing suspicious things like taking photos and notes in public, which journalists and researchers do, and making political protests."

Video surveillance is supposed to reduce crime. Does it?

Terry Devitt, editor; Steve Furay, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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