Many cameras, little privacy

Walter Pincus
Reporter August 12, 2013

Every person who walks into almost any bank in the United States is being captured on video by a closed-circuit television system.

In fact, many stores and semipublic establishments of all kinds use CCTV.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

They don’t need permits or have to suspect anyone on tape of being harmful. They record everyone — just in case.

Video surveillance technology is as much a part of life as the Internet and the way it allows for the collection of personal and business metadata by service providers, advertisers and, yes, governments.

The leaking of National Security Agency classified documents about two major counterterrorism collection programs exploded into the public’s consciousness. But public attention mostly has focused on the NSA’s program of collecting and storing U.S. phone toll records for five years.

The news shocked many who were unaware that by law, reaffirmed by a 1979 Supreme Court decision, they should have no expectation of privacy for their phone toll records.

Some have said Internet metadata collection by companies is not the same as the government doing it. Google or Microsoft can’t arrest you and put you in jail, they say.

Video surveillance is another story. Law enforcement agencies worldwide have been using increasingly sophisticated CCTV for more than a decade, and often it does help governments put people in jail.

“Modern public video surveillance systems consist of networks of linked cameras spread over vast portions of public space,” according to the Constitution Project’s 2007 study “Guidelines for Public Video Surveillance.”

The nonpartisan legal research organization described cameras “equipped with technologies like high resolution and magnification, motion detection, infrared vision [for nighttime use], and biometric identification [for facial recognition] — all linked to a powerful network capable of automated tracking, archiving, and identifying suspect behavior.”

With a powerful optical zoom lens, a camera can read the wording on a cigarette pack at 100 yards, according to the study.

And video surveillance of license-plate numbers can identify individual cars. In London, many downtown cameras have technology that automatically captures and analyzes drivers’ license plates.

The District has had such a system for years. The Washington Post reported two years ago that the system recorded 1,800 license-plate images a minute, downloading the data into a rapidly expanding archive that could closely track people’s movements.

“The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from ‘unreasonable searches and seizures,’ but no court has yet found law enforcement use of video cameras to surveil activity on public property to be an unreasonable search,” the Constitution Project report said.

D.C. police list 92 neighborhood camera locations on their Web site. Thirty other cameras are permanently installed on buildings mainly in the downtown area and focused on public spaces around the Mall, the Capitol, the White House, Union Station and other critical installations, according to the Web site.

Most others are located in areas with a high volume of reported violent crime, “where cameras record footage in real-time to help prevent and interrupt violent crime and to assist criminal investigations,” according to a recent Urban Institute study. Police can view in real time or review footage after a crime “to find evidence, identify suspects or witnesses, and construct an incident timeline to assist with investigations,” the study notes.

D.C. police say the system is used “primarily to monitor wide areas. Arbitrary or discriminatory tracking of individuals is expressly prohibited by policy and regulation, and could result in disciplinary action.”

A D.C. police official at the rank of lieutenant or above supervises and monitors CCTV activities. Images are recorded only with the chief of police’s authorization, and recordings are kept for a maximum of 10 days.

If they contain evidence of criminal activity or an event that may involve civil liability, however, the recordings are maintained until disposition of the case, according to D.C. police.

The Boston Marathon bombing case, in which police successfully matched their own videos with those from stores and individuals to tentatively identify the alleged bombers, has sparked new interest in upgrading video surveillance. It also has increased interest in facial-recognition tools that enhance video images so they can be compared with databases such as driver’s license photos.

New software allows fuzzy facial images to be enhanced and even manipulated to put them in expressions similar to those of still photos.

You can glimpse the future through two industry-leading groups — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and casinos.

In Las Vegas, the Aria
hotel-casino has installed some 50 Oncam Grandeye 360-degree cameras among its more than 1,100 cameras, according to an April article in Security Today. The 360-degree camera components allow the security team to view recorded video, locate a subject before an incident, identify him and then, using other cameras, track him through the giant casino.

Meanwhile, DARPA is working on technology called the Video and Image Retrieval and Analysis Tool, which tries to query a video archive about an action — a person in some specific area stepping out of a car with a package, for example.

Privacy in the public arena is becoming a thing of the past. A September 2012 Wall Street Journal article said, “Data about a typical American is collected in more than 20 different ways during everyday activities.”

Worried about the NSA’s collection of telephone toll records? There’s a lot of other collection going on around you, and more waiting on the horizon.

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