Watching How We Are Watched

The Wrong Way To Carry Out Video Surveillance in D.C.

For more than five years, security experts and privacy advocates have praised the public video surveillance network operated by the D.C. police department as the model of a well-balanced system. The department has adopted a set of common-sense regulations for its 91 cameras that give police access to footage when they need it while protecting the privacy rights of the millions who live or work in Washington.

We were greatly disappointed, then, to hear Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Darrell Darnell, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, announce plans this month [front page, April 10] to centralize monitoring of more than 5,000 cameras, including those in and around our schools, public housing and residential neighborhoods. Even worse, it appears that Darnell’s office has no plans to apply the D.C. police department’s best-in-the-nation safeguards.

In February, the D.C. police released a report evaluating the successes and failures of the video surveillance system. The report concluded that since the network was expanded into residential areas, some types of crime have declined in those neighborhoods. The department was applauded for undertaking an examination of its own system: A public account of how a video surveillance system affects the lives of a city’s residents promotes accountability. Sadly, the reporting requirement is one that may be scrapped as the D.C. police department loses control of the network.

Unchecked video surveillance invades individual privacy rights. People in public spaces routinely engage in activities that they expect and desire to keep private. For example, consider attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or seeking treatment at a fertility clinic — legal and private activities — while faceless individuals track your movements. This is an area in which the law has not kept pace with rapidly changing technology. We need well-reasoned guidelines to protect the privacy rights of individuals in the face of emerging surveillance tools.

A public video surveillance system that is well regulated can ultimately improve public safety. Requiring investigators to review footage within 10 days after recording and to destroy all recordings except those including evidence of criminal activity focuses limited law-enforcement resources on those cases that most deserve attention. Limiting deployment of cameras to areas with a specific need for surveillance ensures that precious dollars aren’t misspent by taking well-trained officers off their community patrols and putting them behind video monitors.

If the District proceeds with its networking plans, we will need increased safeguards, not an abandonment of carefully crafted regulations. The Liberty and Security Committee of the Constitution Project — a bipartisan coalition of political leaders, law enforcement experts and legal scholars — has issued guidelines to assist cities in making the decision to install or expand camera networks. Those guidelines encourage cities to carefully evaluate the need for cameras, design privacy safeguards with public input, and limit access to footage to those officers with a specific need. The D.C. police department had already adopted many of these regulations, and we caution against any decision to abandon them.

Responsible, limited use of video surveillance can supplement traditional law enforcement practices. It is not too late to tie the existing regulations to any centralized camera network (or even to write stronger regulations for the new system). The mayor should seize this opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to both the liberty and security of Washington and his constituents.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

John Podesta


— William S. Sessions


The writers are, respectively, president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress and former director of the FBI (1987-1993). They also are members of the Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee.

Source: The Washington Post

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