Little Brother is Watching Too

By Carlton Purvis, Published Mar 20, 2014, 12:00am EDT

The concept of Little Brother is a play off George Orwell’s Big Brother in the book 1984, the all seeing eye of the government watching over the population from a single vantage point. Little Brother however, refers to the increase in private surveillance cameras and the capability to record video anywhere using portable devices or phones.

Interview with the ACLU

We talked to ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley about the rise of private cameras and what that means for privacy.

More Checks and Balances

One of the main differences in having a centralized system that is managed by police and a decentralized “system” made up of property owners is that it puts more obstacles in the way for abuses.

When most of the cameras are owned by private companies throughout a city, “if something really bad happens you can take all the cameras and assemble a comprehensive picture of what somebody did, but you aren’t likely to do that without good reason and a fair amount of work. It’s a protection against the type of abuse we see all too often when it comes to video surveillance,” he said. Abuse of a private network of cameras would require more people to be involved, therefore more likely to be exposed and less likely for someone to take the risk.

“Even though it's still not ideal to have all of our public spaces blanketed by cameras, it’s a lot better from that point of view,” he said.

He also noted in a that video being used by public citizens usually leads to a very different outcome from video in the hands of a police officer which can sometimes disappear.

The Increase in Private Cameras is Unstoppable

As methods of recording video get cheaper and more portable “the trend will only accelerate,” he wrote in a blog post earlier this year.

“Everybody basically carries a video camera in their pocket with them everywhere they go,” he said.

Another reason he expect them to increase is that the courts have consistently ruled that the right to film in public places is protected by the First Amendment and polls show “strong support for surveillance cameras in densely populated areas.”

“We can try to regulate to the extent that individuals take photographs when they’re walking down the sidewalk, but I don’t think that would be practical or doable. These cameras play a large role in the citizen versus the police and that would be thrown overboard if we were to start regulating private cameras, ” he said.

Private Cameras Reduce Rationale For Government Systems

As private cameras proliferate, they reduce the need for governments to have pervasive systems, ACLU's Stanley says.

The ACLU, sees no problems with places like New Orleans that are mapping the locations of private cameras, but worries about cases where surveillance becomes mandatory, like in White Plains, New York.

“It’s really like a surveillance tax,” Stanley said. “You’re forcing businesses to do what they wouldn’t otherwise do. They only businesses that are going to be affected are the ones who wouldn’t have a camera if this law didn’t exist.”

After most crimes, stores would be willing to give up their surveillance footage, but the law in White Plains also requires businesses give police access to the footage when requested.

“I would have a problem with a law requiring them to make video images available to the police. If the business owner thinks it is not in their best interest, the police should need to get a warrant like they would for any other private information,” he said.

ALPR

Stanley says private ALPR databases are a tough issue. If the government is collecting license plate data, there should be strict regulations governing the use of the technology. However when it comes to companies doing it, a law would mean regulating people who are taking photos in public places.

“Privacy can be a very strong state interest. The question it comes down to is how significant a person’s right to privacy is compared to the company’s interests. And whether photos done on a mass scale deserve the same protections as a person standing on the street with their personal camera,” he said.

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