Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Into the fishbowl we jump

Henning Kaiser photo

On the one hand,

The Department of Homeland Security is funneling millions of dollars to local governments nationwide for purchasing high-tech video camera networks, accelerating the rise of a "surveillance society" in which the sense of freedom that stems from being anonymous in public will be lost, privacy rights advocates warn. ...

Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke said that it is difficult to say how much money has been spent on surveillance cameras because many grants awarded to states or cities contained money for cameras and other equipment. Knocke defended the funding of video networks as a valuable tool for protecting the nation. "We will encourage their use in the future," he added.

Boston Globe,
August 12, 2007


S.F. public housing cameras no help in homicide arrests

The 178 video cameras that keep watch on San Francisco public housing developments have never helped police officers arrest a homicide suspect even though about a quarter of the city's homicides occur on or near public housing property, city officials say....

Though the Housing Authority doesn't keep a record of how often its cameras' footage is used in making arrests in crimes, a housing authority official and a police lieutenant told the committee they are unaware of the footage ever being used to arrest a homicide suspect.

The city has its own security camera program with 70 cameras in 25 high-crime locations. None of them is on federal housing authority property, but many of them are positioned at street corners right outside them. ...

Four homicides have occurred in the past 12 months at the intersection of Laguna and Eddy streets -- at the corner of the Plaza East public housing development - including the daytime killing of a 19-year-old in May. A security camera is trained on that corner but so far has not proven useful in making any arrests...

San Francisco Chronicle,
August 14, 2007

I draw two possible lessons from these two articles:
  • Police and federal spooks want to get their budgets raised so someone can monitor the cameras at all times.
  • Very likely some Republican crony is making a killing on all those cameras paid for by Homeland Security.
The Brits are way ahead of us on this: it is estimated that there is one camera, public or private, for every 14 people in the U.K. The cameras don't make people safer:

One effect that has been noticed is that initially crime moves away from the cameras which is why they are often touted as a success. However within a short period of time the crime returns. Usually the criminals have baseball caps and hooded tops etc to hide their identity, and "do the job" very quickly.

The criminals obviously know that a camera like a burglar alarm only represents a threat when you don't know how to allow for it in terms of time, identification hiding etc.

As for the privacy implications of these cameras, it looks like we're on the way to much more effective, near universal surveillance.

... technicians are developing ways to use computers to process real-time and stored digital video, including license-plate readers, face-recognition scanners, and software that detects "anomalous behavior." Although still primitive, these technologies are improving, some with help from research grants by the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate.

"Being able to collect this much data on people is going to be very powerful, and it opens people up for abuses of power," said Jennifer King, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies privacy and technology. "The problem with explaining this scenario is that today it's a little futuristic. [A major loss of privacy] is a low risk today, but five years from now it will present a higher risk."

As this technological capacity evolves, it will be far easier for individuals to attract police suspicion simply for acting differently and far easier for police to track that person's movement closely, including retracing their steps backwards in time. It will also create a greater risk that the officials who control the cameras could use them for personal or political gain, specialists said.

Boston Globe,
August 12, 2007

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