Surveillance Raises Eyebrows in Reading, Pa.

Reading, Pennsylvania is the latest city to jump on the video surveillance bandwagon.

The city, with a population of 400,000, has teamed up with Virginia-based CelPlan Technologies to install a municipal wireless video surveillance network to help combat crime.

The 22-camera system will allow police to access video in their vehicles.

“We are implementing this video surveillance system as part of a larger effort to reduce crime in our city, and we are extremely excited with the broad support in our community,” Reading Police Chief William Heim said in a prepared statement.

Seen As Invasive

But experts say municipal video surveillance is not the right answer to crime problems, because of its invasive nature and potential effect on the innocent.

“I think this raises enormous privacy issues and don’t think city residents have been given an opportunity to adequately review these proposals,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington DC-based public interest research institution.

“There’s a real risk of mischief if there are not guidelines established. Basically, this is a recording of everyone’s activities that will be accessible to police, and we know there have been abuses of this already in cities where these networks are already in use,” Rotenberg said.

“Our view from a privacy perspective is there should be strict limitations: The purpose of the system should be well defined, the need to delete information should be clearly stated, the rights of the individual to get access to information about them that’s being maintained by the city should be clearly established, and the vendor’s record of related projects should be open to public review and scrutiny,” Rotenberg said.

“We have a real concern that a lot of taxpayer money is being spent on these systems without a real consideration of whether there’s much benefit being provided,” Rotenberg added.

Privacy Not Expected

Not everyone thinks citywide video surveillance is an invasion of privacy.

“In general, whether or not a city has the right to put up a surveillance system seems completely reasonable to me because you don’t really have an expectation of privacy when you are in a public place,” said Daniel Ballon, Ph.D., a senior technology expert at the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on personal responsibility in national and state affairs.

“So I don’t think these types of networks will have too much trouble on that front,” Ballon added. “Plus, if it decreases crime, residents are more likely to embrace the use of technology.”

Tech Advancing

Experts such as Rotenberg say the real privacy concerns are in the type and capabilities of the technology used.

“It’s absurd to say that these systems don’t create a privacy issue because one doesn’t expect privacy when in public,” Rotenberg said. “A person may not have privacy in terms of what someone else can see or hear in public, but as to what technology might be able to record, that’s almost boundless.

“It could include literally looking through people’s clothing to hearing whispers on the street,” Rotenberg said. “So there clearly has to be some rules in place as to what technology is used for physical surveillance.

“One of the great sensitivities about video surveillance as it becomes more widespread is that it’s moving from highway intersections and into residential communities. That makes it pretty easy to look inside a person’s home and record everything that’s happening, which is why it’s clear that there must be some guidelines for this technology,” Rotenberg said.

Backdoor Muni Wi-Fi?

Another concern about municipal video surveillance networks is the way they’re created. Industry professionals say taxpayers are being duped into paying for much more than they think.

“This is where it gets interesting,” said Ballon. “They are not hardwiring cameras to the police station, which I suppose is what they would have done in the past. Instead they are going to place a number of wireless cameras throughout the city, which will require a hook into the Internet via a wi-fi connection. They can’t do that unless they have a muni wi-fi network, so this is a roundabout way of having the city build a municipal wireless network.

“It seems misleading to the taxpayers who think it’s not a big deal and that all they are doing is putting up some cameras,” Ballon said. “But in order to do that, they have to make a much larger investment of building a wireless network to blanket the entire city, which is a strategy that’s failed in countless cities across the country.

“If the goal is only to put up wireless cameras, there are better ways to do that than building a network,” Ballon said. “They can put up the cameras but should purchase wireless Internet service from a provider, or if a camera is located near a hotspot, the city should just tap into that available wi-fi hotspot.”

Open Discussion Wanted

To address the underlying problems of privacy and use of taxpayer money, Rotenberg suggests city councils take a new approach to introducing surveillance plans to residents.

“Part of the problem is city councils are behind the curve on this one,” explained Rotenberg. “They will have public meetings to discuss plans to build parks, relocate highways, and upgrade schools, but when someone is proposing a system of surveillance that could impact everybody who lives in a town or city, there’s too little discussion. We think these issues really need some public airing and are pushing for that.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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