Video surveillance threatens privacy, experts say

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(photo illustrations by Alyssa Nielsen)

Someone robs a bank. News outlets show the surveillance footage to the public. The police apprehend the robber. Victory for surveillance cameras.

But the cameras are on and recording when no one is committing crimes, too. Cameras record people as they shop, as they drive, as they walk through their neighborhoods.

Drones can capture footage from up above. Passersby can capture footage from their phones. Home security cameras capture footage of the people next door. Hackers record footage from compromised webcams. And all this doesn’t even include businesses’ security and local, state and national surveillance video.

American Civil Liberties Union of Utah attorney Marina Lowe said privacy issues are rising as more cameras record capture clearer details of people’s daily lives.

“There’s obviously two prongs to this: when the government is filming you and when everyone else is filming one another,” Lowe said.

Joseph Ekstrom, a BYU information technologies professor who teaches cybersecurity, said citizens could potentially be recorded any time.

With cellphones and with people with their cameras on, you’re basically on TV all the time,” Ekstrom said. “There’s just no way to know.”

Law enforcement, businesses, schools, homeowners and others use surveillance cameras to increase security and capture footage of crimes. A 2013 Rasmussen Report found 70 percent of people support the use of surveillance cameras in public places.

But as the cost of technology decreases and the features become more advanced, the likelihood footage is recorded without consent also increases, Ekstrom said.

“There’s this interesting problem,” Ekstrom said. “As this stuff has gotten cheaper and more easily available, anybody who wants to put up video surveillance can. It’s not just the government.”

Video surveillance and other surveillance measures raise significant privacy concerns, and Lowe said technology often outpaces advancements in law.

“It often takes years to get a decision from the court, and so that’s one of the real challenges because it doesn’t take that same amount of time for technology to advance and develop in new ways,” Lowe said. “But just because technology is advancing doesn’t mean we should suffer a loss of privacy.”

Existing legal protections to ensure privacy include the Fourth Amendment, which protects “against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Lowe said other protections come from proactive and reactive legislation and then case law.

The ACLU website said the problem with security surveillance systems is the possibility of abuse, whether institutional or personal. It reports individuals using professional surveillance systems for voyeurism, blackmail, discrimination and other non-security purposes.

“There’s a concern about how this footage is being kept, who has access to this footage, for what purposes can it be accessed, can it be linked to other kind of materials to develop a profile of an individual,” Lowe said.

The ACLU of Utah helps entities when they want to start surveillance programs and emphasizes the importance of written policies, according to Lowe.

“We want to make sure there are clear guidelines and that there are clear consequences when somebody violates those provisions,” Lowe said.

Shahid Buttar believes the prevalence of surveillance technologies affects not only privacy, but also democracy more broadly. Buttar is the director of grassroots advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1990 to protect individuals’ rights in the digital era.

Buttar, a constitutional lawyer, draws on American history to support his belief. He said the American colonists’ anger about general warrants was a motivation for declaring independence from Great Britain.

“The general warrants were absolutely at the center of the colonists’ grievances,” Buttar said.

He and other Electronic Frontier Foundation representatives compare current government surveillance practices to those general warrants.

Butter said government surveillance is the most concerning type. This concern also includes the government acquiring surveillance from other entities.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation actively fights against what it considers “illegal surveillance” by the National Security Agency.

Video is only part of the broader surveillance issue. Technologies such as license plate readers and facial-recognition systems create further privacy and democracy challenges, Buttar said.

“I would describe video surveillance as a tip of the iceberg,” Buttar said.

Many agencies with surveillance efforts, such as police departments,  report to local governments. Buttar said he believes this government level is where people can affect change.

“There is a democratic opportunity for we the people to rein some of this in,” Buttar said. “At the local level, we the people still have a voice.”

Ekstrom, Lowe and Buttar all said they believe people need to become better informed with the issues and technology’s possibilities. Lowe, like Buttar, emphasized the chance for citizens to participate in these discussions with their local governments.

“People should be aware,” Lowe said. “They should pay attention to when their city councils are approving installation of cameras in their towns and communities. That’s an opportunity for the public to weigh in and express that they don’t want to be surveilled in this manner.”

Technology and surveillance have great purposes to benefit society, but what can be used for good can also be used for bad, Ekstrom said. Buttar and Lowe agreed.

“If it’s based on reasonable suspicion or criminal activity or a tip, targeted surveillance could be very useful from a security standpoint,” Buttar said.

Surveillance systems are there with the first purpose to make society safer, not to harm, Lowe said.

“Usually people put in place — the government puts in place — these policies on the auspices of making things safer and the protection of citizens,” Lowe said.

 

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