Web of cameras raising privacy fears – The Arizona Republic


SourceArizona Republic


In a park in El Mirage, a surveillance camera allows the city’s assistant police chief to watch the scene from his desk, operating a zoom lens so powerful he can see softball players, picnickers and potential crime suspects two blocks from the camera.


In Tempe, live photos of people strolling on Mill Avenue pop up on the city’s website every 15 seconds, taken from the “Sneaky Peak” camera barely visible atop a nearby building.


A rapidly spreading network of cameras is keeping watch on Phoenix-area residents. Over the past decade, government-operated closed-circuit-television cameras have sprung up in city libraries, pools and parks. Photo-enforcement cameras scan downtown streets and highways, casting the shadow of Big Brother across the Valley.


The appearance of CCTV cameras in Arizona is part of a trend in electronic policing designed to increase security and deter crime. It has become popular with government agencies in other states and countries, but it also has raised an outcry over invasion of privacy.


In Pennsylvania, a 15-year-old boy is suing a school district in suburban Philadelphia after it used webcams on laptops to snap nearly 56,000 photos of students who took the computers home. The district said it was trying to track lost and stolen laptops.


In Britain, an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras track citizens so closely that a privacy watchdog estimates that people are captured on film in big cities 300 times a day.


In Vancouver, British Columbia, nearly 1,000 cameras were installed for the 2010 Winter Olympics to monitor crowds.


The cameras in the Valley aren’t that prevalent, but if you want to read a book in Chandler’s downtown library, 26 security cameras installed last year will read your every move. When you go swimming in a public pool in Mesa, high-tech infrared cameras observe your movements as they monitor for vandalism and trespassing. Cameras on light-rail trains help the drivers keep an eye on what’s happening inside and outside the cars.


Police, other government agencies and private security companies rave about how the cameras help them protect people, streets and neighborhoods. But critics, alarmed at the intrusiveness, ask who is protecting people’s privacy. They say the spread of cameras has been happening too fast and the public has too little say about it.


Government-run cameras have been installed with little public dialogue and few policies to regulate the footage and how it can be used. The critics worry about voyeurism by those who watch the video and, even more concerning, the chilling effect it might have on people’s lives as they think twice about what they say and do in public for fear of being caught on tape.


Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU in Arizona, noted that Department of Homeland Security grants and grants from private companies have offered strong incentives for local governments to install cameras quickly and for a variety of purposes.


“It’s important for government agencies to really ensure transparency, to have debates and bring it up to city councils before the public before purchasing the cameras,” Meetze said.


Without safeguards, Meetze warns, Phoenix could become a “surveillance society,” with cameras in every public space and citizens having to cope with constant monitoring.


Keeping vigil
The 13-acre, $4.6 million Gateway Park in El Mirage, which opened last summer, has a number of features: a skate plaza, splash pad, walking path and baseball fields.


The park also comes equipped with a high-quality digital camera with a panning view and infrared capability for nighttime surveillance. It keeps vigil over the children, skateboarders, baseball players and families.


From his desk 3 miles away, Assistant Police Chief Bill Louis can see couples picnicking and dogs bounding about in the dog park. He also can spot trouble.


Every morning he reads an overnight report generated by a Mesa security surveillance company, Iveda Solutions, which operates cameras and whose employees monitor the park from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Then he logs into a system on his computer to watch a live feed of the park.


When a call came recently about two people suspected of dealing drugs from a car, Louis instructed patrol officers to wait a block from the park while he zoomed the camera in on the car. After witnessing a liquor violation, he instructed the officers to move in. No drugs were found, but one man had an outstanding warrant. The footage, which automatically recorded everything, can be used as evidence in court.


Louis said he has had no complaints from the public.


“I defend the Constitution, and I’m concerned about Big Brother, too. But when we’re talking about a public park, historically, from a police department perspective, it’s a police problem location,” he said. “It’s one thing to have privacy in a place where there’s an expectation of privacy, but that’s not one of them. And I’ve never had anybody make an issue out of Big Brother or issues of privacy with cameras in the park.


“Certainly the benefit of having that outweighs any concern there would be, in my opinion.”


No state or federal laws regulate photographing people in public. People generally don’t expect privacy from cameras in places where they can be seen by passers-by, Meetze acknowledged.


But the larger problem, she said, is the lack of local public dialogue on the issue.


For example: A stimulus grant from the Department of Transportation is paving the way for a $90,000 camera system to watch cars on Glendale’s streets and show traffic conditions. The City Council approved the installation without discussion in October.


In Chandler, in addition to the 26 security cameras inside the library, another 26 watch the Tumbleweed Recreation Center. Footage from the cameras is reviewed only if an incident occurs, said Craig Younger, a Chandler city spokesman.


Contracts for the cameras were approved along with 20 to 50 items passed on a single vote without discussion.


Meetze and the ACLU are pushing for contracts to be considered individually. She wants transparency through public debates at city-council meetings before cameras are bought and installed.


“Rules need to be established in advance so that the public has a clear understanding of who has access to the tapes, how long are they kept, what’s going to happen if there’s some sort of abuse, what sort of punishment will apply to violators,” she said. “It needs to be documented and clear policies in place to address these concerns.”


At least one local agency is considering such policies. The Mesa Police Department is working on a protocol to govern how officers can use a newly bought but not yet installed camera-surveillance system for its airplane. Although the department declined to go into detail, Sgt. Ed Wessing said it will be used only for specific investigations and not for general monitoring of the public.

Pros and cons


At Iveda Solutions’ headquarters on the third floor of a Mesa office building, large plasma-television screens are divided into 16 squares. In one corner, a camera shows the lobby of a local small-town police station. Another shows a Michigan truck yard. Feeds from cameras in retail shops, parking lots and construction sites spread out across five other large monitors. One of them keeps track of the park in El Mirage.


David Ly, a young, thin man in glasses and tie, founded the video-surveillance business about five years ago. It outfits companies with cameras, has employees who monitor the feeds overnight and sets up remote access so that business owners can view the footage on personal computers and cellphones. The company can monitor images for about $2 to $3 an hour per camera, saving customers about 75 percent of the cost of hiring a security guard, Ly said.


He offers a portal to law enforcement to view live feeds. If a business is being robbed, police can see who is inside, where they are and what weapons they have.


While most cameras Iveda installs and operates are in private businesses, about 30 percent of its contracts are with government agencies, including police departments. It boasts of arrests for burglaries, graffiti, drug crimes, vandalism and even skinny-dipping in public pools.


Every night, employees watch the feeds and create reports for customers like Bill Louis. They watch the people who come and go at Gateway Park, calling police when something appears to be amiss.


“These departments have less staff, and with the cutbacks in staff, it doesn’t mean you and I need any less service. So we’re providing electronic policing,” Ly said. “It’s not about intrusion; it’s just leveraging the technology to be somewhere when you cannot send a staff out there.”


While he sees his services as simply extending his clients’ reach where budgets won’t allow them to go, others argue the approach could make it more difficult to hold officials accountable. If questions are raised about abuse of the system by employees, a city or agency can shift responsibility to a contract vendor, said law professor Sandy Askland of Arizona State University.


Public bodies have even less control over access to archival footage or employees with an unprofessional interest in the people they are watching, Askland said.


When it comes to surveillance, he added, concerns of stalking always exist – even if the person doing the watching isn’t an immediate physical threat. Without controls, it’s possible for an employee not only to keep an eye on an attractive woman, for example, but to save footage and share it with friends.


“I think for good reason we don’t want to be watched that way,” Askland said. “We want to be anonymous.”


As the number of cameras viewing the public increases, the technology also is advancing. Anyone with a smartphone can record friends and strangers and upload those photos and videos to the Internet for public consumption, giving people less control over their personal exposure. Sometimes that benefits law enforcement.


Chandler detectives caught a car thief last June thanks to a passer-by who recorded a car crash on his smartphone. He took images of the thief who walked away after crashing a stolen pickup truck into concrete barriers in the median of the San Tan Freeway.


To police and other authorities, the increase in camera surveillance could be good news: People will be less likely to deface neighborhoods with graffiti, drive dangerously or use drugs in public places. But critics see a downside: Most people being watched are doing nothing wrong and have no reason to be observed.


Askland considers the cameras a possible first step toward even greater public scrutiny.


He compared the rapidly growing network of surveillance to that in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, where the government had spies in the community and paid informants to identify potential dissenters. The ultimate result, he said, could be censored conversations and a society in which people are afraid to offer their opinions.


Megan Boehnke


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