Do Camera Phones Excuse Government Surveillance?

Author: John Honovich, Published on Mar 15, 2011

While public surveillance systems increase around the world, concerns remain about their misuse and potential privacy violations. However, US privacy concerns are generally fairly low, especially compared to the UK. To that end, a recent US City Police Captain's justification of why his surveillance system does not violate privacy is especially interesting. His logic: "If there's a fight happening on the street, it's on YouTube 30 minutes later. What's the difference [of public surveillance]?" This raises some fascinating points.

On the one hand, video captured by the public on their phones is clearly becoming a major societal factor. We've seen this vividly in a Seattle police filming incident, leaked surveillance video from security guards and argued ourselves of the risk / impact of camera phones. The use of these phone is increasing rapidly with estimates of nearly 400 million of these phone sold in 2013. If we are not already at, we will soon be in a world of ubiqituous personal video cameras. This will change the perception of privacy. If everyone can (or is) recording you anyway what does it matter if the government does so as well?

On the other hand, key differences exist in the government's use of surveillance video:

  • Government cameras are generally always on 24/7/365; Private cameras are almost never on and only turn on after an event has already started when the event is of interest to an individual.
  • Government video recording can be easily and systematically accessed; Even if a private camera captured video of an individual, the likelihood that others would find out about it is low (for every YouTube sensation, millions of videos are never viewed by more than a few people ever)
  • Goverment video feeds can be used to track individuals across large areas; These systems are designed to provide broad coverage and allow operators to track individuals. Unless a person with a camera phone has the time and effort to spy on a person up close doing so is unlikely.

We think it is obvious that significant differences exist between a city's surveillance and individuals using smart phones. However, there is no dout that as 'private surveillance' increases, governments will use this as a rationale to why publicly run surveillance does not infringe on individual's rights.

Final note: The same article cites the City of Orlando spending $1 Million on a public surveillance system that led to 25 total arrests in 2009.

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