Report cites government surveillance expansion
without regulation and public debate
Photo by Luke
From ACLU of Northern California
August 20, 2007
California cities are moving quickly to install video surveillance
cameras on public streets and plazas without regulations, with
little or no public debate, and without an evaluation of their
effectiveness, according to an ACLU report released today.
Even though 37 cities have some type of video surveillance program,
and 10 cities are considering expansive programs, no jurisdiction
in California has conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the
surveillance cameras' effectiveness, according to a public records
survey conducted by the three ACLU California affiliates. The
ACLU sent Public Records Act requests to a total of 131 jurisdictions
statewide and received responses from 119 cities.
"In the last two years, the federal Department of Homeland
Security has made more than $1.4 billion available to cities for
anti-terrorism projects," said Maya Harris, executive director
of the ACLU of Northern California. "This trend, along with
rising homicide rates and aggressive marketing by security companies,
has led many cities to approve and install surveillance camera
systems without guidelines to protect civil liberties and with
little or no public debate. We strongly urge local governments
to pause and consider whether this is the best way to make our
The 25-page report "Under the Watchful Eye" looks at
the threat video surveillance cameras pose to privacy and free
speech, examines law enforcement justifications for video surveillance
programs, and reviews the findings from an ACLU public records
According to the ACLU report, surveillance camera programs do
not significantly reduce crime in city centers. Mark Schlosberg,
Police Practices Policy Director of the ACLU of Northern California
and co-author of the report said, "The use of surveillance
cameras, unfortunately, comes at the expense of proven crime reduction
measures such as better lighting, foot patrols, and community
policing. In this sense, throwing money at video surveillance
actually detracts from law enforcement's efforts to reduce crime."
In a July 13 editorial, the New York Times raised similar concerns
about the New York police commissioner's $90-million initiative
to install 3,000 cameras in lower Manhattan: "The troubling
thing about New York's move, though, is that the only thing it's
guaranteed to diminish is privacy. There's little proof that the
money spent to equip and operate the system will do more for public
safety than, say, hiring more cops."
In the last few years, reports of abuses involving surveillance
cameras have also surfaced. From camera surveillance of protestors
in NYC to a San Francisco police officer, who faced disciplinary
action for using surveillance cameras at the airport to ogle women.
Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director and
report co-author, raises another serious concern. "The threat
of widespread government surveillance only multiplies when cameras
are combined with other new technologies such as radio frequency
identification (RFID) tags, face and eye scans, and automated
identification software. In this light, video surveillance cameras
provide a critical pillar for an emerging government surveillance
To protect civil liberties, the ACLU California affiliates make
the following recommendations:
- Given the surveillance cameras' limited usefulness and the
potential threat they pose to civil liberties, local governments
should stop deploying surveillance cameras in public spaces.
- Local governments considering camera programs should fully
evaluate other crime reduction measures before spending limited
public safety dollars on video surveillance systems.
- Local governments should fully assess any proposed system's
effectiveness and impact and establish a process for open public
- Any city with a video surveillance system already in place
should conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the system's effectiveness
and impact on privacy. The city should make public the results
of the evaluation and hold public hearings on the future of surveillance
programs and possible alternative crime reduction measures.
The ACLU of Northern California, ACLU of Southern California,
and the ACLU of San Diego/Imperial Counties released the report
The full report and supporting documents, including various studies
and recent news stories are available at www.aclunc.org/watchfuleye.