NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Surveillance Cameras Join List Of Privacy Issues

August 2, 2001

The city of Tampa has installed 36 surveillance cameras in its Ybor City entertainment district. The cameras connect to a nearby command post where police view video monitors of the strolling crowds and a computer compares pedestrians' faces with 1,000 database images of known felons and teenage runaways.

While police have not detained anyone yet in the month-long experiment, other cities -- such as Virginia Beach, Va. -- are considering installing similar systems.

The obvious privacy concerns are bringing together such unlikely allies as the American Civil Liberties Union and House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). They contend that the identification technique erodes privacy rights and raises the specter of government tracking individuals' movements.

The cameras are joining a list of other "Big Brother" type privacy issues.

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation, for example, has begun to monitor e-mail and Web browsing.
  • Car rental companies are being criticized for using global positioning satellites to detect and fine speeders.
  • In 40 cities, automatic cameras monitoring traffic trigger citations for running red lights.

Law enforcement for several years has used facial databases unattached to surveillance cameras as an investigative tool. Most often, an unidentified suspect's photo is run against digitized libraries of jail booking shots.

Source: Martin Kasindorf, "'Big Brother' Cameras on Watch for Criminals," USA Today, August 2, 2001.


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