Security vs. liberty: Where do we draw the line?

Published: Saturday, May 4 2013 3:20 p.m. MDT

Security cameras in Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 3, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It was just days after the horror of the April 15 bombings in Boston when the surveillance images were revealed.

Two men in hats and backpacks, one in sunglasses, their images distributed widely by the FBI. The use of the photos in identifying and locating the suspects has spurred other cities to evaluate the use — and expansion — of surveillance cameras in their own cities.

And Americans just might be OK with that.

According to a poll conducted by the New York Times and published last week, 78 percent of those polled said "surveillance cameras were a good idea." But the growing use of cameras has sparked a debate between the interests of civil liberty and privacy, and public safety and security.

"We're seeing a proliferation of surveillance cameras in general," Lara Jones, spokeswoman for Salt Lake City Police, said. "You're seeing them on a variety of businesses, homes, banks, just about everywhere you go you're running into cameras, not to mention everyone walking down the street with a smart phone that has a camera, still and video, is free to do what they want with that."

But the prevailing use of video and the ease with which it can be distributed within moments around the world on the Internet leaves questions about whether technology has outpaced discussion of its ethical and legal uses.

"There are myriad ways you can end up on surveillance and have that image posted online and it's a collective question for all of us to as how much is too much and what is the policy on that?" Jones said. "Technology can do wonderful things (but) where is that line, as far as the collective 'we' is concerned, when it comes to privacy in this new era?"

Wayne McCormack, a University of Utah law professor, said it goes back to what makes up a "reasonable expectation of privacy" and argued that even before cameras, there wasn't much of one when it came to the public square.

"We have really never had a reasonable expectation of privacy when you're simply walking down a city street," he said. "Law enforcement could watch you and even follow you if they wanted to and that's always been the case. It's simply you're in the public, out and doing things that are observable."

He said, though, that surveillance cameras do come with the potential for a permanent record, which is a different concept. That change, sparked by technology, has in turn led to a change in the public expectation.

"We still have expectations of privacy, but they're much more limited because of technology," McCormack said. "They are limited to our home and to some areas where we consciously surround ourselves with private barriers."

The New York Times poll showed that nine out of 10 respondents believed Americans will always live with a risk of terrorism and suggested that the receptiveness to cameras was tied to a public that was willing to concede some measure of privacy and liberty for the purpose of safety.

A critical time

Still, Karen McCreary, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, questioned the effectiveness of surveillance cameras and said it is a "critical time to have that engagement" on the issue and whether it is the best place to dedicate resources.

"Once we decide that we're surveilling our cities, then everyone becomes a suspect and then, in a way, really no one is a suspect," McCreary said. "I think that's what we see so much now, is the saturation of information and … it doesn't take the place, and it can't really, of really good public safety officials and officers, regular community police officers doing their jobs right."

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