Video Surveillance

Featured Publication


Intersection: Sidewalks & Public Space

Chapter by Melissa Ngo

"The Myth of Security Under Camera Surveillance"

There has been a surge in the number of surveillance cameras in Washington D.C. in the last year. In most cases, cameras are hidden from view or disguised so as to be undetected by those passing by the camera's gaze. Some cameras can swivel to locate you, zoom in, and intrude unsuspectingly on your personal space. Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) has grown significantly from being used by companies to protect personal property to becoming a tool used by law enforcement authorities for surveillance of public spaces. After the September 11th attacks, US policymakers and security and intelligence services are increasingly turning toward video surveillance technology as the answer to terrorist threats and the public's demand for security. However, important questions need to be addressed before uncritically accepting the routine surveillance of public spaces, including whether video surveillance is an effective remedy for crime prevention and deterrence and whether it is an appropriate security measure in terms of civil liberties protections.

Video surveillance is more prevalent in Europe than it is in the United States. Evidence from Europe, however, suggests that the benefits of CCTV are significantly overstated. In the past decade, successive UK governments have installed over 1.5 million cameras in response to terrorist bombings. While the average Londoner is estimated to have their picture recorded more than three hundred times a day, no single bomber has been caught. Despite this evidence, in the United States, current anti-terrorist fears, combined with the surge in road rage, the perception of an increase in crime, and several high-profile school shootings, are causing many to call for increased video surveillance not only on highways, in schools, public parks and government buildings, but in all public spaces.

EPIC launched a project, " Observing Surveillance," which documents the surge in the number of video cameras placed in DC's public spaces. Some of the arguments invoked by law enforcement authorities to justify their use of video surveillance are that it helps prevent crime and that there is no expectation of privacy in public spaces. Evidence, however, has shown that video surveillance cameras have limited, if any, effects on crime prevention. In most cases, surveillance merely enhances people's sense of security rather than their actual physical security. There is, thus, concern not only about the amount of images and information collected, but its uses and the length of time it is retained. Many also question whether this surveillance impinges upon free speech and freedom of association - especially when it is used to monitor political protests and rallies. There is a strong need for clear procedural guidelines and legislation that addresses the effectiveness, purpose, and usage of video surveillance, as well as the sharing and retention of the individuals' images recorded, and that provides for penalties and public oversight.

Latest News and Events

  • EPIC Speaks at DC City Council on Video Surveillance EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg appearedbefore the DC City Counciltoday to support the efforts of Council Members to suspend the "VIPS" Surveillance Systemand to urge the City Council to investigate the role of the firm L-1 Identity Solutions,the leading vendor of camera surveillance equipment. See Observing Surveillance. (June 2)
  • D.C. Council Cuts Funding for Video Surveillance System.The D.C. City Council has removed$886,000 from the Mayor's proposed homeland security budget for a system of 5,200 surveillance cameras in the nation's capital. D.C. Council members and others criticized the " Video Interoperability for Public Safety"system, which lacks privacy safeguards. The Council required the Mayor to develop rules for video surveillance cameras and technology that must be approved by the Council before future funding is authorized. See Observing Surveillance. (May 14)
  • EPIC Commends D.C. Council Committee for Blocking Funding for New Surveillance System.In a letter(pdf) to the D.C. Council, EPIC, ACLU-NCAand the Constitution Projectcommended the Public Safety and Judiciary Committeefor cutting $886,000 from the proposed homeland security budget for a system of 5,200 surveillance cameras. D.C. Council members and others have criticized the "Video Interoperability for Public Safety"system, which lacks privacy safeguards. The groups urged the full Council to examine "the VIPS program and explore whether a centralized network of thousands of cameras throughout the District is a cost effective and appropriate strategy." (May 9)
  • UK Police Official: Surveillance Cameras 'Have Failed To Cut Crime.'London's ubiquitous CCTV system has been used to solve only 3 percent of the city's street robberies, Detective Chief Inspector Mike Neville, head of Scotland Yard's Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office, told the Security Document World Conference in London. He said the camera surveillance network has been "an utter fiasco," and they do not act as deterrents to crime. No studies have shown a significant drop in violent crime when camera systems are used. (May 6)
  • D.C. Council Committee Refuses to Fund Mayor's Massive Camera Surveillance Network.The Public Safety and Judiciary Committeeof the D.C. Council has cut $886,000 from Mayor Fenty's proposed homeland security budget, money designated for the consolidation of about 5,200 surveillance cameras into a single network. D.C. Council members and others have criticized the Video Interoperability for Public Safety, which does not yet have regulations to protect individual privacy. The budget will go to the full Council, which could choose to reinstate the funding. The Department of Homeland Security will provide approximately 90% of the funding for the D.C. camera system. In March, in a statement to the DC Council, EPIC urged(pdf) a careful evaluation of the cost and effectiveness of camera surveillance systems. No studies have shown a significant drop in violent crime when camera systems are used. (May 2)
  • Washington, DC, Police to Connect 5,000 Surveillance Cameras.DC officials are poised to give the Metropolitan Police Department access to 5,000 cameras throughout the city, Mayor Fenty's office announced today. These cameras were originally deployed to monitor traffic, schools and public housing but are now being drafted into general public surveillance. Last month, in a statement to the DC Council, EPIC urged(pdf) a careful evaluation of the cost and effectiveness of camera surveillance systems. No studies have shown a significant drop in violent crime when camera systems are used. The MPD has suggested a drop in crime in some parts of the city, but Council member Mary Cheh noted that MPD did not analyze whether the crimes were merely displaced to other areas of the city. In the MPD's annual report(pdf) on cameras, police showed no convictions and a handful of arrests based on evidence from the 73 cameras throughout the District. (Apr. 8)
  • EPIC Opposes Expanded Camera Surveillance of DC Residents.In a statement to the DC Council, EPIC urged(pdf) a careful evaluation of the cost and effectiveness of camera surveillance systems. Council members are debating a billthat would require all gas station owners in the District to purchase and install camera systems. However, no studies have shown a significant drop in violent crime when camera systems are used. The Metropolitan Police Department has suggested a drop in crime in some parts of the city, but Councilmember Mary Cheh noted that MPD did not analyze whether the crimes were merely displaced to other areas of the city. As for helping to solve crimes, in the MPD's annual report(pdf) on cameras, police showed no convictions and a handful of arrests based on evidence from the 73 cameras throughout the District. (Mar. 11)
  • Canadian Privacy Commissioner Issues Report on Camera Surveillance.Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian has issued a reporton the Toronto Transit System's recent expansion of its video surveillance system. Privacy International had filed a complaint(pdf) with the office regarding plans to deploy 12,000 cameras across Toronto's transportation network of buses, streetcars, and subways at a cost of $18 million. Privacy International argued that the collection principles in the relevant legislation are not being sufficiently attended to in that the collection is not necessary, that the scheme is being deployed without consideration to privacy and associated protocols, and with insufficient consideration regarding access powers. After a four-month investigation, the Commissioner ruled that the system, "is in compliance with Ontario's Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act - but she is calling on the TTC to undertake a number of specific steps to enhance privacy protection." The Commissioner recommends that TTC reduce its retention period "from a maximum of seven days to a maximum of 72 hours (the same standard as the Toronto Police), unless required for an investigation"; that the "video surveillance policy should specifically state that the annual audit must be thorough, comprehensive, and must test all program areas of the TTC employing video surveillance to ensure compliance with the policy and the written procedures" and be conducted by an independent third party; and other privacy recommendations. (Mar. 3)





Previous News and Events

  • EPIC Proposes Privacy Conditions for Video Surveillance.In comments(pdf) filed today with the Department of Homeland Security, EPIC detailed its "Framework for Protecting Privacy & Civil Liberties If CCTV Systems Are Contemplated." EPIC explained that it "does not support the creation nor the expansion of video surveillance systems, because their limited benefits do not outweigh their enormous monetary and social costs." EPIC's guidelines explain that (1) alternatives to CCTV are preferred; (2) there must be a demonstrated need for the system; (3) the public and privacy and security experts must be consulted before the system is created; (4) Fair Information Practicesmust govern any use of video surveillance; (5) there must be a privacy and civil liberties assessment; and (6) there needs to be room to create enhanced safeguards for any enhanced surveillance. EPIC's framework is based on Fair Information Practices, the Privacy Act of 1974, the 1980 OECD Privacy Guidelines, and the Video Voyeurism Act. (Jan. 15, 2008)
  • EPIC Urges Against Camera Surveillance At DHS Privacy Workshop.At a Department of Homeland Security workshop, EPIC recommended against the creation of camera surveillance systems (also known as "CCTV"), stating that studies have shown the systems do not significantly violent crime and that less expensive technology, such as improved lighting and motion sensors, are more effective. EPIC Senior Counsel Melissa Ngo said, if communities do decide to install CCTV systems, then fair information practicesincluding minimization of data collection, retention, use and distribution, openness of process, and public access to and correction of records, stringent security safeguards, and accountability. See Observing Surveillance. (Dec. 18)
  • San Francisco Cameras Do Not Help in Homicide Investigations.City officials announced that the 178 video cameras in San Francisco public housing developments have not helped police officers arrest a homicide suspect even though about a quarter of the city's homicides occur on or near public housing property. The Board of Supervisors' public safety committee held a hearing on the cameras, which have been installed over the past two years with money from the federal government. San Francisco also has its own surveillance camera system; 70 cameras are deployed in 25 "high-crime" locations. (August 14, 2007)
  • British Police to Embed Cameras into Their Hats.Britain, already one of the most heavily surveilled nations, is increasing its use of surveillance cameras. British authorities have authorized GBP 3 million to place video cameras onto the caps of police officers. That's enough to buy more than 2,000 camera hats, each with enough memory to hold 24 hours of tape. (July 13, 2007)
  • Cyprus Investigating Allegations of Illegal Surveillance in Government Office.Cypriot police are investigating a breach of privacy claim into the government's Commission for the Protection of Competition (CPC). The probe came after complaints and strikes from the CPC's staff, which accused the Competition Commissioner of pervasive workplace surveillance. According to employees, the monitoring system included CCTV cameras and microphones throughout the offices, including restrooms, which could be accessed remotely through the Commissioner's personal computer. In their ongoing investigation, the police discovered about 600 pictures, freeze-frames from video recordings, including about 400 of a particular female employee, on the Commissioner's computer. Cyprus' Data Protection Commissioner stated that since the CPC surveillance scandal broke, her office had received numerous similar complaints from across the island. (July 11, 2007)
  • Companies Use Surveillance Cameras for Advertising Studies.Surveillance cameras have long been used as anti-crime devices. However, companies are now seeking to use surveillance cameras to watch people for advertising research. In Germany, developers are placing video cameras into street advertisements and attempting to discern people's emotional reactions to the ads. Dutch researchers are using experimental emotion-recognition software to test individuals' reactions to advertisements and marketing. (July 10, 2007)
  • New York City Plans Extensive Surveillance of Downtown.NYC is planning the "Lower Manhattan Security Initiative," which would greatly enhance the surveillance of downtown streets. The plan would install 3,000 cameras in the Manhattan area, license plate scanners to track drivers, and an operations center, and might use face recognition technology. The city estimates the new surveillance system would cost $90 million, $15 million of which would come from Homeland Security grants and $10 million from NYC. The city also is seeking to charge drivers a fee for entering Lower Manhattan; the fees would go toward the surveillance project. No studies have shown that camera surveillance systems greatly reduce crime, though several have been conducted by police departments in the U.S. and U.K. (July 9, 2007)
  • Cyprus to 'Significantly' Increase Number of Surveillance Cameras.The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) announced it would "significantly" increase the number of surveillance cameras located on the island's ceasefire buffer zone. UNFICYP was established in 1964 to prevent hostilities between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, and the buffer zone extends over 180 kilometers, approximately three percent of the island. The cameras will operate 24 hours a day, according to UNFICYP spokesman, with the aim of positively affecting peoples' behavior in a manner similar to the way traffic cameras improve driving. (June 6, 2007)
  • Federal Air Marshals to Surreptitiously Photograph Travelers.The US Department of Homeland Security is investing in face recognition technology so that federal marshals can surreptitiously photograph people in airports, bus and train stations, and elsewhere to check whether they are in terrorist databases. The Los Angeles police department already is using handheld facial recognition devices. See EPIC's Face Recognitionpage. (May 10, 2007)
  • UK Report: You Can Have Security and Privacy.In a new report(pdf), "Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance," the Royal Academy of Engineeringexplains that security and privacy are not at odds. The Academy urges the UK government to make "full use of engineering expertise in managing the risks posed by surveillance and data management technologies." The Academy also suggests "stricter guidelines for companies who hold personal data, requiring companies to store data securely, to notify customers if their data are lost or stolen, and to tell [customers] what the data are being used for." (Mar. 27, 2007)
  • D.C. Police Chief: Expanded Camera Surveillance Hasn't Cut Crime.In the seven weeks that they've been deployed, Washington, D.C.'s 48 new surveillance cameras have not helped to solve any cases, according to D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey. He spoke before the Council's Committee on the Judiciaryabout the emergency crime legislation adopted on July 11. EPIC and other groups opposed the Council's decision to expand camera surveillance, establish an earlier curfew, and grant police access to confidential juvenile information. EPIC has repeatedly warned(pdf) the Council that the use of public surveillance systems are ineffectiveand prone to abuse. (Oct. 3, 2006)
  • DC Council Approves Temporary Expansion of Video Surveillance.Responding to a proposal from Mayor Williams for emergency legislation, the DC Councilagreed to install 23 surveillance camerasin residential neighborhoods for the first time. The Council also approved an earlier curfew and police access to confidential juvenile information. Youth groups, privacy and civil liberties organizations protestedthe measures, which will be in force for 90 days. The Council has scheduled an October hearing on the surveillance cameras.. (July 20, 2006)
  • EPIC Opposes Expansion of DC Video Surveillance.In comments ( pdf) to the Metropolitan Police Department, EPIC opposed a new CCTV project that would dramatically expand police surveillance of the public. The proposal would also allow the police chief to establish a system of secret video cameras without informing the public. EPIC urged the MPD to maintain public notification standards for video surveillance. EPIC also urged the MPD to set clear, objective standards for evaluating the system. For more information, see EPIC's Spotlight on Surveillancepage. (Jun. 29, 2006)
  • EPIC Speaks to Homeland Security on Video Surveillance.In testimony ( pdf) before the Department of Homeland Security's Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, EPIC said that privacy in public spaces was a vital part of our democratic experience. EPIC said that privacy in public spaces also called anonymity is assured by the inability of people to remember in great detail their own past. The encroachment of surveillance technology like CCTV is threatening this important privacy right. (Jun. 7, 2006)
  • D.C. Council Unveils D.C. Police's Spying Practices.The D.C. Council's Judiciary Committee has approveda Report on Investigation of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)'s Policy and Practice in Handling Demonstrations in the District of Columbia.The report, the result of a 9-month investigation into MPD's handling of recent demonstrations, recommends legislation to restrict police surveillance of political organizations and preemptive arrests of protesters. The report reveals that the police used undercover officers to infiltrate political groups not suspected of any criminal activity, and repeatedly violated its own rules for handling demonstrations including crowd control and mass arrests. For additional information, see EPIC's Protester Privacypages. (Mar. 16. 2004)
  • Minneapolis Police and Target Corp. Partner in Surveillance. Target Corp. has made a gift to the Minneapolis Police Departmentconsisting of at least 30 security surveillance cameras. They were installed to keep watch over a 10-block shopping area including Target's corporate headquarters and target Center. It is important to consider a number of issues that arise when the police and private sector enter a surveillance partnership. This partnership involves a lack of police video surveillance guidelines, as well as a lack of debate at the community level to ascertain the usefulness of the video surveillance scheme and its impact on freedom of expression and privacy. (June 2003)
  • World Sousveillance Day 2002.On December 24, people are invited to take pictures of (or videotape) video surveillance in action to show their opposition to the sprawl of surveillance cameras into every aspect of life. More information. (Dec. 18, 2002)
  • EPIC Urges DC Council to Reject General Video Surveillance.The DC Council held a hearing on the use of video surveillance in the District of Columbia at which EPIC's Executive Director testified and proposed a new draft bill (pdf)that combines the procedural safeguards of Councilmember Kathy Patterson's bill (pdf)with a second bill's (pdf)prohibition of general video surveillance. (Dec. 13)
  • WAMU Radio - The Kojo Nnamdi Showhosted an interview of EPIC Policy Fellow Cédric Laurant and DC Council member Kathy Patterson, entitled D.C. Police Surveillance Cameras: How will they affect you?(RealAudio file - minutes 13 to 30). (Nov. 11)
  • The proposed regulations governing the use of surveillance cameras in Washington, DC are up for consideration by the DC City Council on November 7, after which they will serve as an interim measure while the Council drafts permanent legislation. Councilmember Kathy Patterson is drafting this legislation, which will be the subject of a public hearing scheduled for December 12. Police chief Charles Ramsey has requested public comments on the system and on specific camera installations. Comments should be sent to Terrence D. Ryan, General Counsel, Metropolitan Police Department, Room 4125, 300 Indiana Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001. The DC City Council is also still accepting commentson the system. (Oct. 28)
  • EPIC held a photo exhibit on video surveillance in the Nation's Capital. (Sept. 12, 2002)
  • DC Police Will Use Surveillance Cameras on July 4th.The Park Police and District Police will conduct video surveillance of the Fourth of July celebrations on the National Mall, according to articles in The Washington Postand The Washington Times. Sergeant Scott Fear of the US Park Police claims that their surveillance plans are secret. EPIC sought details of the Park Service plans in March under open government law but was informed that no records existed. EPIC has obtained logs of helicopter surveillancefrom the Park Police, which reveal that public protests and peaceful demonstrations have routinely been recorded and shared with law enforcement agencies. EPIC will be seeking under the Freedom of Information Act any records of the surveillance conducted by the Park Police during the July 4th celebration. (July 3, 2002)
  • ACTION: Convince DC Council to Limit Cameras.The District of Columbia is still accepting public comments on the Metropolitan Police Department's draft video surveillance regulationsuntil July 27, 2002. You should act now to express your viewson this matter. The D.C. City Councilrecently held an oversight hearingon the use of video surveillance in the Nation's Capital, at which EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg testified. (June 27)
  • Revised surveillance camera guidelines(also available in pdf), still in draft format, released by D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. (June 7)
  • EPIC holds " Observing Surveillance" public event. (June 4)

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