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.

New surveillance technologies, meanwhile, are emerging at a dizzying pace. The blurry videotape scenes of convenience store robberies are rapidly being replaced by crystal-clear video digitally recorded on computer hard drives.

As the number of cameras watching us grows, the surveillance industry is wrestling with the emerging problem of an overabundance of images and properly controlling their distribution. Software that highlights suspicious images can help sort through video. However, federal government leadership is necessary to provide guidance in managing and securing these images.

For an example of how such legislation could work, Congress need only look to Britain. In response to a wave of Irish Republican Army terrorism in the 1970s, closed-circuit cameras were deployed throughout the country, making Britain the world leader in video surveillance. Today, there are more than 4 million such cameras in use there, according to British government figures.

Britain's experience has been helped by legislation passed 10 years ago that put public surveillance under national control. The Data Protection Act of 1998 set clear and consistent guidelines for video monitoring of public spaces, and created the information commissioner's office as the regulatory authority. A code of practice established privacy principles, provided guidelines for safeguarding the use of video images and gave industry a framework for doing business.

The British government also created a partnership between the criminal justice system, local police forces, government departments, the closed-circuit television industry and the Home Office (similar to our Department of Homeland Security) that resulted in a consensus on how and when video surveillance should be used in public spaces.

In the United States, we have a high regard for personal privacy. There are laws to ensure the privacy of medical, credit and tax records. And yet, video surveillance remains largely unregulated. This lack of a national strategy will inevitably result in an incident in which an individual's rights are compromised, or evidence of a significant crime is disallowed in court.

Surveillance technologies will continue to gain in capability -- and become more intrusive. Issues of privacy and public surveillance may appear vexing, but the United States must move forward with laws to effectively adapt to the inevitable spread of this technology. If the public is to trust business and government to watch over us, we need to follow the lessons of Britain and protect video images as we do other private data.

Frank Baitman is president of Petards, the Baltimore-based subsidiary of Britain-based Petards Group, a developer of advanced surveillance systems with installations throughout the Washington region and in more than 40 countries.

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