With Jay Stanley, privacy coordinator, American Civil Liberties Union
Friday, March 22, 2002
The National Park Service will begin round-the-clock video surveillance at all major monuments on the Mall by October, moving aggressively in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks to tighten security around national symbols visited by millions of tourists each year. (Read the article.)
Jay Stanley is the privacy coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has expressed concern that a widespread surveillance network could discourage demonstrators and hamper free expression.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Why does the ACLU oppose the National Park Service's plan to add surveillance to national monuments?
Jay Stanley: The truth is, the ACLU does not have a problem with video surveillance of places that are obvious terrorist targets, and the Mall may qualify. But these cameras are apparently just one part of a larger network of centralized video surveillance that the Washington DC police are building, and we do have problems with that. First, it is not clear that video cameras are effective at stopping crime. How would video cameras stop another attack like Sept. 11? In addition, they have a big potential for abuse - giving police the opportunity to spy on Americans. There are no rules that regulate how the cameras are used, how long the tapes are kept, etc. And finally, pervasive surveillance of public spaces by the police is un-American, will chill freedom of expression (we just don't act as freely when we know we're being watched by the police) and will change the character of public American life.
Fairfax: Frankly, I don't know why anyone has any expectation of privacy anymore. Between corporate video cameras and public safety, there's nowhere that privacy exists except in your own home. Why should the public space of the Mall be any different?
Jay Stanley: I agree that our privacy has taken some big hits in recent years. But if you think your privacy is gone now, I would respond: you ain't seen nothin' yet. We are in the middle of an enormous technological revolution that is producing every week all kinds of new gadgets that can spy on us in new ways -- night vision, "forward looking infrared" that can see through curtains and thin walls," biometrics, database technology, and so on. And currently, even though there's a lot of data collected about people, most of it is collected by different organizations, and is scattered around. We worry that the loss of our privacy will get a lot worse when computers enable the authorities to search out and tie together far-flung sources of data about an individual and create a rich picture of how that person lives their life.
D.C.: For starters, I'm shocked that there aren't already security cameras on the monuments. My tax dollars go to pay for the upkeep of these national monuments and if they get destroyed or vandalized - it's just more money out of my pocket. To my knowledge, no one has an expectation of privacy when they're near a monument. There are park rangers and police officers galore to remind you that you're IN PUBLIC. I just don't see why this is an issue. Why is it?
Jay Stanley: You are right that the courts have found that we have, strictly speaking, no expectation of privacy in public places. That is a legal finding. But the fact is, there has always been a de facto degree of privacy in public -- the privacy that comes from anonymity, the privacy of the crowd. That would change profoundly if everyone knew that there were being watched, and their actions recorded, every time they entered public life. The mall is in the news today, but the real issue is the push to put these cameras up on all our public streets and even in our neighborhoods. Whatever the technical legal finding is, the fact is that it would change American life in a way that we think would be bad. The chilling effect would be significant.
Washington: Do you expect that the cameras would lead to a decrease in crime?
Jay Stanley: It is often taken for granted that video cameras would lead to a decrease in crime, but in fact the evidence is not so clear. In Britain, which has experimented with an extensive system of public cameras, criminologists have studied their effect and have found no evidence that they reduce crime. Criminals learn to evade the cameras view, or they just move their criminal activity elsewhere. Check our Web site for links to some of this research -- www.aclu.org/privacy.
Arlington: So what's the ACLU's recommendation for the best way to voice our opinion to stop this taping? The usual "write your Congressperson" route?
Yes, definitely let your representatives know your opinion, speak up at public meetings, write letters -- and join the ACLU :)
Brooklyn NY: if the cameras were hooked into a face recognition system with photos of suspected terrorists, wouldn't they be able to pick a terrorist out of the crowd and alert authorities?
Jay Stanley: Facial recognition technology today doesn't really work, especially in scanning crowds. We obtained police logs of the system used on the streets of Tampa, and found that it was completely ineffective. A report we wrote about that is on our web site. Even in optimal conditions, with the subject voluntarily staring straight at the camera under bright lights, the error rates are very high. And as far as we can tell the tens of thousands of members of Al Qaeda are hardly lining up to have high-quality photos of themselves taken by the US government.
Virginia: You say that a surveillance camera on the mall could mean a surveillance camera one-day on the streets of my neighborhood, but that already happens. There are cameras on the streetlights making sure that people don't run red lights. It only seems to me that it's a violation of personal privacy if the camera comes into my home. And, unfortunately, I don't see how a camera on the mall becomes a camera in my home. Why no objection to the traffic cameras? Or do you have a problem with them too?
Jay Stanley: The traffic cameras are different - they are still 35mm cameras that are only triggered when there's a violation of the law, so they do not capture innocent people. We have no problem with the idea of red-light cameras, but we think the way they are being implemented -- run by private companies who get a cut of each ticket generated -- is a massive conflict of interest that threatens to undermine citizen respect for the evenhandedness of the law and citizen faith that the cameras are really being run to increase safety and not to maximize ticket revenue.
Washington, D.C.: Why does it matter whether there are cameras on the Mall or not?
Jay Stanley: Cameras just on the Mall are not the main issue here. It is the spread of cameras throughout our public spaces, and the lack of rules or restrictions to prevent abuse. A few years ago, a high-ranking DC police officer was caught using police databases to run license plates of patrons at a gay bar, and to try to blackmail those who had families. Imagine what a bad apple like that could do with a massive video surveillance system. The potential for abuse is enormous. To set that up when there's no clear evidence that it will prevent crime, let alone terrorism, doesn't seem to make sense.
Columbia, Maryland: I disagree that video surveillance would have a "chilling effect" on personal conduct in public spaces. Rather than diminish "privacy" in a public place, it would increase "safety" and "freedom" in that public place. The only people who would have their rights diminished are those who wish to conduct illegal activities (theft, vandalism, terrorism, etc.).
Perhaps you act exactly the same, and are not in the slightest bit self-conscious, when you are hanging out under the nose of an armed officer of the law, but many people are. You might think about what book you are reading as you sit on a bench, wondering if it will draw extra scrutiny from the eye in the sky, or whether your dress will attract their attention, or whether you are goofing off or being too rowdy -- I just believe that it will change the very character & nature of what it is to be out in public in our society.
DC: In my opinion, the only people who need to worry about being caught on film are the people who are violating the law. Protestors typically WANT the media at the events when they march on the mall or demonstrate at the reflective pool. They want to be caught on film so that a photo will run in the Post showing that people care about their cause. There is no expectation of privacy. The only people who want privacy are criminals and terrorists. What is your alternative solution to deterring the bad guys away from national treasures?
Jay Stanley: Again we don't have a problem with video cameras at spots that are obvious terrorist targets. The real issue is spreading cameras around to all our streets and our neighborhoods.
There were probably a lot of cameras on the World Trade Center, and they didn't do any good there. And any high-profile place probably has real live police officers who are in a position to respond to a problem a lot better than some sitting in a dark room 2 miles away.
Arlington: Is there any expectation that the tapes could be used for personal reference? Say I get mugged at the FDR memorial -- could I get that tape to prosecute my mugger, or are the tapes for unnamed government anti-terrorist use only? (same goes for the taping already being done in DC).
The fact is there are no rules and there is no consensus on how videotapes (or more likely, electronically stored video signals on hard drives) could be used, shared, stored, etc. Perhaps you could get the tapes if you were mugged. And perhaps your spouse could get them as evidence in a nasty divorce. And perhaps a police officer could spy on you if you get in a traffic altercation with his brother, or if the government does not like your political opinions, and so on. Because there are no restrictions on how this spy technology could be used, the danger of abuse is real, and the reality of abuse is inevitable.
Washington, DC: Putting up "big brother" cameras to
monitor ourselves places us in a prison
of our own making. How long before we
allow cameras in our homes, just to
prove to the government that we obey the
laws of the land?
I worry that the current administration is
taking advantage of people's fears to
push through legislation that, in times of
sanity, would never be considered. It is a
dangerous path for them to take.
Has this administration generated more,
less, or about the same amount of work
for the ACLU than other recent
There are times in our history when we are confronted with bigger challenges to our liberty than others - and now those challenges are big. Obviously much of that is due to September 11, not the administration. That said, the administration has unfortunately often reacted to the situation by curtailing liberties in ways that are dangerous and that don't even have anything to do with preventing terrorism. For example, they expanded the government's wiretapping powers in all kinds of new ways in the Patriot Act. If you have evidence that someone is a potential terrorist, the government already before Sept. 11 had plenty of authority to wiretap them.
Spokane, Washington: Why do law-abiding citizens need to fear video surveillance of public spaces?
Jay Stanley: Because it will change what it is like to live in America, and lead to the potential for abuse even against innocent people.
WDC: Upon what are you basing your assertions that cameras in public would have a chilling effect on expression? I know, for instance, that social psychological studies have shown that the expression of emotion, for example, is enhanced when others are present. Do you have scientific evidence to the contrary for expressive behavior?
Jay Stanley: I am basing my assertions on common sense, which is that people do not act - or feel - as free when they are being watched by the authorities -- or are aware that they *might* be being watched -- as when they are not being watched.
I'm sure expression of emotion is enhanced when your friends are around, or maybe even friendly strangers, but when suspicious people who have power over you are watching you, I would be surprised if social psychologists reached the same conclusion, unless the "emotion" that is enhanced is anxiety.
ACLU Member in Arlington: It's true that these cameras will not directly affect many people on the mall, but isn't that missing the point? While the chances are extremely slim that criminals/terrorists will be caught or even scared by these cameras, those of us who use the mall to demonstrate points of view different from the Bush Administration will be greatly affected. We are not doing anything illegal, but are in fact being responsible citizens of a democracy during a time when the term "patriot" has been interpreted very narrowly.
I think you are right.
Columbia, Maryland: What "privacy" is a person entitled to when he travels to a publicly accessible place of his own free will?
The courts have found that you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy walking around in public places. But that does not mean that it is a desirable thing for us to blanket our public spaces with video surveillance where the authorities watch every little thing that goes on there and records it to be used for who-knows-what purposes.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Is your objection less that the cameras are there, as the Mall indeed could be a potential attack for a terrorist or terrorist wannabe, and more over what the tapes could be used for? Do we have assurances that the tapes will not be used for others reasons, i.e. tracking "fellow travelers" in a reemergence of a modern day McCarthyism paranoia, or leaking the tapes out to embarrass political enemies who may be filmed even innocently walking in public with people other than their spouses?
That is right. Again the ACLU has no objection to cameras in high-profile terrorist targets like the mall. The fact that there are zero guidelines that restrict how the tapes can be used and shared and stored is, as you suggest, one of our big concerns. The other is that, looking beyond the Mall itself, there is a push to respond to terrorism by blanketing our public spaces, including neighborhoods and normal streets, with surveillance. It is un-American.
Columbia, Maryland: What is the primary concern of the ACLU: freedom, safety, or privacy?
Personally, I always considered "civil liberties" to describe freedom (from persecution, forced religious observance, etc.) much more than privacy.
We don't believe that you can be truly free unless you have privacy.
And we think that America can be made much safer from terrorism without sacrificing the basic values and liberties that are what we are trying to protect. That will not be done if we adopt things like blanket video surveillance that will reduce our freedom -- without really protecting us against terrorism.
D.C.: How does a surveillance camera on the Mall turn into a surveillance camera into my private life ... I just don't see the connection?
Mall cameras alone are not a threat. But the larger plan to create a city-wide camera system that extends into neighborhoods, schools, the Metro, perhaps even shops -- as the technology improves, we fear that such a system will hurt PUBLIC life in America, and could be abused against innocent private American citizens by violating their anonymity.
San Francisco: If CSPAN were covering a demonstration in real-time, would you have the same objections to police watching the demonstrators on TV?
Jay Stanley: Hehe, a clever question. No, we wouldn't object to that, just as we don't object to the police standing around watching a demonstration. But if the police are taking photos of innocent people exercising their First Amendment rights at the demonstration and putting them in a permanent file, along with the people who are walking by (and the people who walk by that spot at every time 24/7 year-round, we would have a problem with that).
Arlington: So, would you (and by extension the ACLU) be content if the Park Service explicitly said that they were recording images from these cameras, at these locations; they were storing those recordings for X amount of time and performing Y processes upon those recordings (face-matching, analysis, etc.); and that those recordings would be available to anyone with a subpoena (or something to separate the cop's brother scenario from the mugging scenario)?
Jay Stanley: We would be happier if there was clear notice about what surveillance was going on, and what the rules were for how the data collected was going to be used. I don't think we'd like those particular rules you outline very much. For example, let's pretend that facial recognition actually worked well, I just don't think the police should be tracking and recording the activities of innocent people. The police are supposed to act when they have *individualized suspicion* in this country, not cast out wide nets to suck in vast amounts of information about citizens on the chance that they will catch wrongdoing, and I fear that's what surveillance could turn into. Finally, subpoenas are not that hard to get. Some companies have filed bogus defamation lawsuits that don't have a chance of prevailing in court, just so they can have subpoena power to discover the identity of anonymous chat-room participants, for example.
washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Jay Stanley.
Jay Stanley: Thank you very much for inviting me on, and thanks to all the participants for their great questions.
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