• United States



by Sandy Kendall

Who’s Watching the Watchers?

Oct 14, 20023 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

Does video surveillance give you a sense of security? Or just scrutiny? The Security Industry Association and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) both estimate that at least two million closed-circuit television systems are in use in the United States. As far back as 1998 an ACLU survey found in Manhattan alone 2,397 cameras fixed on places where people pass or gather, like stores and sidewalks. All but 270 were operated by private entities. EPIC now estimates 5,000 cameras in New York City. CCS International, a company that provides security and monitoring services, calculated last year that the average person in the Big Apple was recorded 73 to 75 times a day. But this is not just a big-city phenomenon.

Madelyne Toogoods physical rage at her child in the parking lot of a Kohls department store in Mishawaka, Ind. made that abundantly clear. Blows aimed at her child were recorded by video cameras that store management had erected in the parking lot, no doubt looking to detect or deter car thieves, vandals and purse-snatchers.

That Toogoods behavior was deplorable is certain. That Kohls personnel turned the video over to the police is understandable. That the police apparently released the footage to the media is troubling. (That the media scooped it up is predictable.)

With all that, the incident almost seemed a justification for the proliferation of video surveillance. The argument in favor of the practice of course is that it enhances security and public safety. And thats an argument that is hard to disprove, because its hard to argue with the absence of something. See, nothing was blown up todaymust be the deterrent of all those cameras. Right? In England, according to the EPIC website, the average citizen is shot by cameras 8 times and urbanites up to 300 times a day, but rates of crime and terrorism have not dropped with the increase in surveillance activity.

Which isnt to say that video cameras havent helped in investigations after the fact. The occasional high-profile capture of a criminal caught on video is emotion-laden confirmation of videos usefulness, and makes arguments against such surveillance seem naïve. Police have come to regard closed-circuit cameras as a key tool in their fight against crime. The Canadian newspaper The Hamilton Spectator reported last week that video surveillance systems accounted for 78 percent of the Home Offices crime prevention budget between 1994 and 1997. The trouble with that is ROI. Overreliance (and overspending) on video systems may cut in to more proven security measures like community policing and well-lighted streets.

And there are other drawbacks. A University of Wisconsin study found that workers are less productive when they know they are under surveillance. Additionally, many people question whether this surveillance impinges upon first amendment rights of free speech and freedom of associationespecially when it is used to monitor political protests and rallies.

Everyone can watch the common people, Philip E. Agre, associate professor of information studies at UCLA, told the New York Times recently. But that has nothing to do with the political question of who can watch the powerful. And that imbalance is cause for concern. As Canadian Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski has noted, There are places in the world where there is a police officer on every corner systematically observing you. And theyre called police states.

Is that what we want? Sometimes it seems that this kind of surveillance has a life of its own, and it just cant get enough of itself. Perhaps its time to start watching the people who are watching. What do you think?