Frank Baitman

Rethinking Surveillance

Monday, February 11, 2008

Video surveillance has become a fact of everyday life. Each time you withdraw cash from the corner ATM, travel through an airport or visit a national monument, your image is probably being recorded.

But you may be surprised to learn that there are no federal laws governing how these images can be used, where they should be stored, with whom they may be shared and when they must be destroyed. In this age of YouTube, TMZ and "Cops," it's hard to know where your image might reappear.

Supreme Court rulings suggest that individual freedoms are not violated by the placement of surveillance cameras, without a warrant, in public spaces. Unless audio recordings are paired with your image, it's unlikely that your privacy has been violated. And, in the absence of federal legislation, state and local governments continue to create a hodgepodge of occasionally conflicting regulations. In the Washington region, that complicates cooperation across jurisdictional lines.

The laissez-faire approach of our national legislators is no longer an option. As an increasingly sophisticated surveillance blanket covers more of the United States, we need federal laws to preserve an individual's right to privacy while setting principles governing the use of closed circuit television and other surveillance technologies for bona fide security purposes.

Specifically, Congress should consider establishing laws to:

¿ Ensure that surveillance technologies satisfy their mission for crime and terror control without the potential for misuse.

¿ Reassure the public that their images are being collected for bona fide objectives, and that there are penalties for those who misuse surveillance recordings.

¿ Promote the adoption of open standards to ensure interoperability, which in turn would promote the introduction of emerging technologies.

The need for such legislation is clear. Governments, operators of transportation systems, and private businesses are increasingly using video surveillance to protect us from street crime and terrorist threats. The trend is particularly pronounced in the Washington area, where many cameras have been added since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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