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I’ve been trying to put my finger on what exactly bothered me about this article on the pervasiveness of surveillance cameras and the reaction to HPD Chief Hurtt’s proposal to install more of them for crimefighting purposes, and I think I’ve finally got it.

[T]he Metropolitan Transit Authority has a video camera on top of the Binz Building downtown to monitor Main Street — the same strip where the Houston Police Department hopes to install surveillance cameras.

Shoppers at the Galleria are monitored by camera both inside and outside the mall. Drivers on freeways managed by the Texas Department of Transportation are caught on tape. Commuters at Metro’s rail and transfer stations and inside trains, and also soon at Park & Ride lots, are watched on screen from miles away. And if you’re cheering at Toyota Center, you can bet you’ll be watched on video.

Schools, too, use camera technology to monitor students. A man who police say sexually assaulted a student in a Westbury High School restroom Feb. 9 was caught on one of the school’s 128 cameras as he entered the school, though authorities have not arrested a suspect. And officials at Westfield High School used images from a surveillance tape to identify students in a fight.

METRO’s camera, according to the caption to the photo in the print edition of the Chron, is to “monitor the Main Street light rail line”. Presumably, that means to ensure the trains are running on schedule, and to watch for any obstacles that could cause a collision. Similarly, TxDOTs cameras are to ensure that traffic is flowing. Those are very specific purposes.

The Galleria and the Toyota Center are private property. Their owners have a lot more leeway to do things, like search customers’ handbags, than the government does. Similarly, the courts have long established that minors do not enjoy the same level of constitutional protections that adults do, which is why school newspapers can be routinely censored and lockers can be opened at will.

Finally, the insides of light rail trains and Park & Ride lots are bounded spaces where it really doesn’t make sense from a cost perspective to use human patrols for security. The London study on CCTV usage in that city showed that cameras in parking lots was the one truly effective use of the tool as a crimefighting device.

What I’m getting at is that none of these situations is really a good comparison for Chief Hurtt’s proposal to blanket downtown in cameras. The purpose of that proposal is too non-specific (What exactly will they be looking for? “Suspicious behavior” covers a lot of ground, after all.), the constitutionality of it all is not a settled matter, the cost justification is questionable, and the effectiveness is poor. And we haven’t even touched the philosophical issues involved.

So let’s just say that I remain highly skeptical and leave it at that. I could imagine some specific, limited situations where I might be willing to acquiesce to this idea, but not without a lot of written guidelines as to what these things will be used for, who will have access to them, and how long the data will be kept. I hope City Council is up to the task of asking the right questions on Tuesday when this is brought up.

Finally, on a side note, I call your attention to The Hurtt Prize. The Internet is a wondrous thing, is it not?

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4 Comments

  1. Charles Hixon says:

    I think these cameras have already identified “suspicious behavior”. And they haven’t even been turned on yet.

  2. Smiley Maddox says:

    Charles, what I miss is that if you look up, 9 out of ten intersections already have mounted cameras….if this doesn’t belong to the city already….who does it belong to? We are already on a blanket security….they just want a bigger blanket.

  3. Mathwiz says:

    METRO’s camera, according to the caption to the photo in the print edition of the Chron, is to “monitor the Main Street light rail line”. Presumably, that means to ensure the trains are running on schedule, and to watch for any obstacles that could cause a collision. Similarly, TxDOTs cameras are to ensure that traffic is flowing. Those are very specific purposes.

    One of the problems with surveillance cameras, of course, is that they capture a lot more information than is needed for the “specific purposes” for which they’re ostensibly installed. Couldn’t Metro ensure the trains are running on schedule with a Tolltag-like RFID on each train? Why did they go with surveillance cameras instead? The same argument with TxDOT’s cameras: they already have RFID readers throughout Dallas and Houston freeways, and enough folks have Tolltags that they can get a pretty good idea of how traffic is flowing even without the cameras.

    When these folks use cameras to do jobs that could be done with less invasive technology, you have to wonder what their true motives are.

    The Galleria and the Toyota Center are private property. Their owners have a lot more leeway to do things, like search customers’ handbags, than the government does.

    It’s true there’s no 4th Amendment issue here. That doesn’t eliminate the moral question, though; nor does it eliminate the possibility of the government regulating these private actors to protect their citizens’ privacy (although that’s unlikely under our current leaders).

    Similarly, the courts have long established that minors do not enjoy the same level of constitutional protections that adults do, which is why school newspapers can be routinely censored and lockers can be opened at will.

    There’s some truth to that, but it’s not just a matter of under- vs. over-18 with the courts. Student newspapers can’t get out of school censorship just by employing only over-18 seniors, and minor students still have 1st Amendment rights on their own time and resourses (e.g., personal Web sites). The bigger issue with the courts has been that schools have a defined mission, and need some leeway to accomplish that mission; the fact that most students are minors may make us more comfortable with restricting their rights, but it’s not the primary justification.

    In short, Chief Hurtt may be taking surveillance to a new level, but given the privacy violations we’ve already acquiesced to, I can’t really say he’s the only one over the line here.

  4. There’s a florida watchdog group that visits police departments and asks for complaint forms and tapes what happens. They came to Houston in 2000. The Executive Director got arrested for walking on the wrong side of the road, just after asking the Santa Fe Police for a complaint form.

    Also, apparently the “suspicious behaviour” of this woman secretly filmed by traffic cameras was “being hawt”.