The Wrong Way To Carry Out Video Surveillance in D.C.
For more than five years, security experts and privacy advocates have praised the public video surveillance network operated by the D.C. police department as the model of a well-balanced system. The department has adopted a set of common-sense regulations for its 91 cameras that give police access to footage when they need it while protecting the privacy rights of the millions who live or work in Washington.
We were greatly disappointed, then, to hear Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Darrell Darnell, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, announce plans this month [front page, April 10] to centralize monitoring of more than 5,000 cameras, including those in and around our schools, public housing and residential neighborhoods. Even worse, it appears that Darnell’s office has no plans to apply the D.C. police department’s best-in-the-nation safeguards.
In February, the D.C. police released a report evaluating the successes and failures of the video surveillance system. The report concluded that since the network was expanded into residential areas, some types of crime have declined in those neighborhoods. The department was applauded for undertaking an examination of its own system: A public account of how a video surveillance system affects the lives of a city’s residents promotes accountability. Sadly, the reporting requirement is one that may be scrapped as the D.C. police department loses control of the network.
Unchecked video surveillance invades individual privacy rights. People in public spaces routinely engage in activities that they expect and desire to keep private. For example, consider attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or seeking treatment at a fertility clinic — legal and private activities — while faceless individuals track your movements. This is an area in which the law has not kept pace with rapidly changing technology. We need well-reasoned guidelines to protect the privacy rights of individuals in the face of emerging surveillance tools.