There's Always Someone Looking at You!

While visiting friends in Baltimore recently, I was a little surprised at how many video cameras there were, always keeping an electronic eye on the comings and going of ordinary citizens 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The cameras are supposedly there to deter crime and, when the criminals refuse to be deterred, to provide evidence when a crime is prosecuted in court. They are supposed to make tourists feel safer in a city that has a reputation as a little on the violent side. But instead of being comforted, they made me feel a bit uneasy.

By no means is Baltimore the only place you will find an abundance of surveillance cameras. They are practically everywhere we go -- stores, sports stadiums, traffic lights, government buildings, police cars! It seems like there is always someone looking at you even when you are all alone. And it is true that in a way the cameras can be reassuring because we do live in a dangerous world. But there is still something about it that just creeps me out! Have we really come to this? And perhaps more importantly, do these cameras really reduce crime?

Baltimore's camera system is known as Citiwatch and it is the second camera system the city has used. According to DVTel, Inc., the company that developed the system, the cameras yield "literally thousands of arrests coming directly from video surveillance" and also, according to their website, Baltimore Police "estimate violent crime is down year-on-year more than 15% in the areas covered by the project". But there is no actual source given for these statistics and no time frame regarding when they were gathered. It is not even clear if the "thousands of arrests" are monthly, yearly or over the course of the camera program.

But Baltimore is not the most watched city in America. That honor goes to Chicago where thousands of cameras monitor the citizens every minute of the day. Mayor Richard M. Daley has said he would like to actually have a camera on every street corner. Unlike Baltimore's camera system, Chicago's system is a passive system, meaning no one actually watches the cameras live, but they are used when a crime is committed to see if it was captured on video. Opinions are split as to how effective the camera network is.

Research done by a team from the Criminal Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute found the cameras did reduce crime in high crime areas but had no affect in areas where crime rates were lower. While their report found the cameras to be cost effective, many feel the value of the cameras are hard to calculate as there are many variables affecting crime rates and it is hard to put dollar values on crimes involving victims with physical injuries. And that is without even considering if the price paid in privacy is worth the results the cameras achieve.

Certainly there will be some people who feel if the cameras stop even one crime, they are worth the investment. And if you are the one whose family member is injured or killed, robbed or assaulted, then certainly the price would be worth it to you no matter what the cost. So it really becomes a question of where to draw the line.

All those cameras in stores and on private property are clearly allowable as it is up to the property owner and if you do not wish to be observed you can simply stay away from that person's home or business. But none of us can avoid a city street nor should we have to. So ultimately we must all find a middle ground where safety is enhanced but privacy is preserved. It doesn't look like it will be an easy choice to make.

Some questions that should be considered when determining if cameras are to be used and to what extent:

  • How long will images captured by these cameras be stored?
  • What security will be implemented to ensure images stay under control of law enforcement?
  • Should privacy be sacrificed in areas with low crime or only where crime rates are high?
  • If only implementing in high crimes areas, at what level of crime do cameras become necessary?
  • Do we allow facial-recognition software to be used when no crime has been committed?
  • Should the camera system be active (monitored by humans) or passive (recording to be used if needed but not watched otherwise)?
  • Can anything be done to enhance personal privacy while protecting the public?
  • Are the results achieved with the cameras worth the privacy that is sacrificed?

How do you feel about police security cameras in your city?

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PR Morgan profile image

PR Morgan 5 years ago from Sarasota Florida

Great Hub! Very insightful and thought provoking. I don't believe in "big brother" but if it cuts down on crime it is a good thing. Hopefully the powers that be will not abuse their powers of observation!

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