The ACLU’s client and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden once was famously quoted as saying, “No system of mass surveillance has existed in any society that we know of to this point that has not been abused.”

It’s frightening then, that government and law enforcement’s fixation on watching us in public places continues to grow and deployment of surveillance becomes increasingly commonplace.

Let’s take a look at some examples from right here in Virginia.

In Virginia Beach, police-owned cameras have watched residents and tourists on the oceanfront boardwalk since 2014. With 24 units currently in place, officials plan to expand that program to 88 total cameras at a total cost of $3.4 million. The ACLU of Virginia’s constitutional warnings have gone unheeded.

In Charlottesville, local police in March installed seven cameras along the popular Downtown pedestrian mall in phase one of a project first proposed in 2007 but that had been delayed following concerns raised by civil liberties advocates including the ACLU of Virginia.

Last week in Richmond, the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) has acknowledged its plan to mount 105 new cameras at 26 stops along a seven-mile stretch of the busy Broad Street corridor that will serve as route to a new rapid bus transit system called The Pulse. GRTC officials say the cameras will always be on and the police will have ready access to images they capture.

This will add to the 32 surveillance cameras police say they already own and operate to capture public activity in Richmond, including in the city’s Shockoe Bottom commercial district and even in some public housing communities. The chief boasts access to video captured by more than 200 total cameras across the city.

Finally, and if that wasn’t enough, a Richmond city councilor has proposed a new government-sanctioned surveillance program under which residents would be reimbursed for purchasing and installing cameras on private property and aimed at the public rights-of-way. Police officials have endorsed the idea, likening it to “similar” but much more robust and intrusive programs that already exist in Detroit and Washington, D.C.

What’s wrong with all of this, if it makes us safer? That’s the argument to which many quickly give way in the post-911 era when the right to privacy seems quaint and long-forgotten.

The answer from a civil liberties perspective: plenty. Let’s look at facts:

  • Video surveillance has not been proven to be an effective deterrent to crime, and the onus should be on law enforcement to prove that it is before they spend public funds to watch law-abiding citizens. Research in this area is inconclusive, failing to drawn a direct correlation between the presence of cameras and reductions in crime.
  • Surveillance technologies are susceptible to hacking and abuse, as Mr. Snowden observed. Documented examples include a top-ranking D.C. law police official who used surveillance databases to compile license plate numbers associated with patrons of a gay club; Michigan police officers who used video to stalk women, threaten motorists after traffic altercations, and track estranged spouses; and discriminatory targeting of African-Americans in Baltimore. This is in addition to the obvious potential for institutional abuse and sheer voyeurism.
  • There are little to no checks or balances on use of closed-circuit systems in public, and the capabilities and usages of surveillance systems by law enforcement nearly always expands once they are in place. The Detroit- and D.C.-sanctioned systems actually require that the equipment be high resolution, be directed at public spaces, and allow police to access owners’ property to check cameras’ working order.
  • Video surveillance has a chilling effect on public life. There is no question that when law enforcement is watching, people’s behavior is impeded, and not just criminal behavior. People are more likely to dress and act differently in public and are far less likely to just have fun when they know police are watching, for fear that they will draw attention to themselves and end up in trouble.

What, then, is the answer? The ACLU of Virginia rejects out of hand the false notion that security demands the sacrifice of our liberty. We advocate for local ordinances that would at least require elected officials whom we can hold accountable to be involved in decision-making and let residents have a say in how and whether they are surveilled.

The ACLU doesn’t flatly oppose technology or its use in law enforcement. We do oppose its use without public “consent” to use it generally, without good policies in place to protect privacy and First Amendment rights and prohibit discriminatory targeting against people of color. Lacking that, abuse, as Mr. Snowden said, is both precedented and predictable.

 

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