The D.C. Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary yesterday held a hearing, which I testified at, on the “Video Interoperability for Public Safety” (“VIPS”) program. There is little known about the VIPS program. On April 8, in a press release, Mayor Fenty announced the creation of the Video Interoperability for Public Safety Program, which would “connect the city’s more than 5200 cameras into one network” and “result in a CCTV system that operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year […].” Mayor Fenty stated that VIPS would not focus solely on crime, instead “the VIPS program will also have an all-hazards approach” and be consolidated under the District’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (“HSEMA”). It is unclear what “all-hazards” encompasses.
The other witnesses were: Jeffrey Rosen, George Washington University Law Professor and author of “The Naked Crowd,” a book about privacy after the September 11, 2001 attacks; Steve Block, Legislative Counsel of the ACLU of the National Capital Area; Sharon Bradford Franklin, Senior Counsel of the Constitution Project; Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center; and Dan Tangherlini, D.C. City Administrator (Tangherlini was pinch-hitting for Darrell Darnell, Director of D.C.’s homeland security agency, who was unable to make the hearing because of a personal issue).
|Media Coverage of the Hearing|
|Washington Post: Council Questions Camera Plan
Examiner: Privacy advocates, lawmakers criticize
citywide camera plan
Councilmember Mary Cheh asked why there was such a rush — why couldn’t the city take the time to determine which departments would be involved, how they would share the data and what privacy and civil liberty safeguards should be in place before the city began linking up the 5,200 cameras? Tangherlini had no real answer other than to say there was a rush because currently the different departments were operating under different policies and the city didn’t want that to continue.
Other than Tangherlini, the witnesses were unanimous in their statements that camera surveillance systems do not cut crime. They pointed to various studies that showed cameras had no significant effect on crime. These reports (pdf) were produced by entities such as the UK Home Office (comparable to the US departments of Justice and Homeland Security), which had every incentive to prove that camera surveillance did decrease crime.
Various witnesses highlighted statistics from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s own annual report (pdf) on CCTV, released in February. The report said that violent crime in areas within 250 feet of cameras dropped by 19 percent since last year, but also found that there has been a 1 percent increase in violent crime in the rest of the District. The MPD did not conduct any analysis as to whether the crime was simply displaced from the camera areas to other parts of the District.
Displacement effect is a significant problem, as shown by a recent study (pdf) on San Francisco cameras. That study, by the University of California at Berkeley, found that San Francisco’s 68 anti-crime cameras have not affected assaults, sex offenses, or robberies. The only effect that the cameras had on homicides was to move the murders less than 500 feet away, displacing the crimes.
The response of the San Francisco mayor was to insist on installing more cameras because they make people feel safer. Councilmember Muriel Bowser was skeptical of the claims that camera systems did not work and noted that her constituents kept calling for more and more cameras. Committee Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmember Cheh both asked the witnesses how to combat the pervasive public perception that cameras will make neighborhoods safer.
The ACLU’s Steve Block said his organization had asked focus groups the same question and found that people did not realize that the money spent on cameras was taken away from more proven crime-prevention techniques, such as increasing the number of beat officers. The ACLU came up with the slogan, “More cops not cameras.”
I agreed that showing the true cost of cameras would get through to some members of the public, but said individuals don’t truly understand the privacy problems with cameras until the surveillance affects them personally. I gave the example of Google’s Street View, where thousands of street-level photos of various U.S. cities were taken by Google operatives and then linked to Google Maps and Google Earth searches. There were images of sunbathers, a man picking his nose, a woman’s cat in her window, and various other photographs that the individuals involved considered to be violations of their privacy rights. I believe that people will only understand this violation if they or someone close to them is subjected to it. (See my previous post on Google Street View here.)
On another note, the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Marc Rotenberg highlighted that a vendor seeking to sell surveillance equipment to the District, L-1 Identity Solutions, is the same company that has been offering similar technology to China. There are questions about the legality of L-1’s sales to China, because laws were passed after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 that prohibited U.S. companies from selling China any products that have to do with “crime control or detection instruments or equipment.” He pointed to the detailed story on China’s surveillance network recently published by Rolling Stone.
The Constitution Project’s Sharon Bradford Franklin questioned why neither the Council nor the public had been advised of this massive camera surveillance system before it was implemented. She and others asked why a system linking cameras watching over schoolchildren, public housing, and more under the District’s homeland security agency was created without any privacy or civil liberties safeguards and regulations. Several witnesses stated that strong regulations would reduce misuse and abuse of camera systems.
I highlighted two cases of misuse of surveillance system footage in my testimony:
Last year, in Tacoma, Wash., a high school official showed parents video of their daughter kissing another girl. The surveillance cameras had been put in place to catch crimes such as vandalism or schoolyard fights, yet the footage was used for a completely different purpose.
More disturbing is what occurred in 2004. A young man’s suicide was filmed by a surveillance system in a New York public housing project. The video from the police surveillance camera ended up on Consumption Junction, a Web site describing itself as a purveyor of “free video clips that include shocking moments, brutal stupidity, and a healthy dose of hard core sex.” The suicide video was labeled, “Introducing: The Self-Cleansing Housing Project.” The young man’s foster mother learned the video was on the Web site and she said, “I started healing, and this kicked me backwards. My whole body was shaking.”
Chairman Mendelson questioned why the cameras were being centralized and made more uniform when the reasons for the different sets of cameras were varied. Transportation, public housing, and school cameras all serve different purposes, and the Chairman did not understand the reasons proffered for bringing them all under the homeland security umbrella.
Councilmember Cheh said that she did not believe 5,200 cameras should be linked into one massive system, especially without adequate public debate and investigations. She also said that perhaps now was the time to review all the cameras in the District and evaluate if they are necessary and if they are fulfilling the goals for which they were deployed.
I agree. My conclusion was, “Before the Video Interoperability for Public Safety Program is deployed, the District government must answer the questions that have been raised here today. District residents deserve to know if this program would in fact improve their safety or if it is yet another attempt to slap a Band-Aid on a gushing wound and call the problem solved.”
If you’ve gotten all the way to the end of this post, then you must really be interested in camera surveillance. You can read my complete testimony here (pdf). The testimony given by other individuals should be available soon on their Web sites. The video of the hearing should be available here in a few days. If you are interested in submitting comments on VIPS, contact for Chairman Mendelson’s staff is available here.