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."
She said it is acceptable to use surveillance cameras in a particular way, such as in the solving of crimes or for a limited time in a certain area with parameters in place. But she is concerned that there are often "huge developments" made without any public discussion or awareness.
"Part of it is just understanding the technology is there and how it's used and who can use it and there should be limits on that and regulations about how it should be used," she said. "We've certainly seen, I think, an erosion of our privacy rights that I would argue have not been in keeping with constitutional standards and what we would expect."
Jones said the Salt Lake City Police Department does have policies in place about the use of cameras. The department's policy, as laid out in February 2008, said cameras would be used for the sole purpose of monitoring of public spaces "where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy such as city public parks, sidewalks and city streets."
The policy also laid out further information about, among other things, where cameras would be installed, how they would be used and how recordings would be made and how long they would be kept in an effort to "mitigate the intrusion on privacy."
The policy prohibited intentional "active monitoring" based on a person's age, race, and gender, for example.
Jones said Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank has made a deliberate effort to be transparent and engage the public in the policies that guide the police department. These discussions will continue to be necessary as technology advances.
"It's a whole evolving conversation that the police department looks forward to the public having with us," Jones said.
She said the department hopes the cameras do serve a deterrent purpose, but that they are used to aid in investigations. Even in those situations, the department strives to be deliberate.
"We're very specific in how we release surveillance video as a law enforcement agency because what we want is it to result in something," Jones said. "We don't mean to exploit or titillate or release it for entertainment purposes and I think that's a collective discussion for society as well as what does the release of surveillance imagery from a public agency do?
"Does it move forward an investigation does it somehow educate or serve a common good?'"
The real usefulness of surveillance video in public safety efforts often comes down to the public, as it did in response to the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
"Ultimately we can put up a video, but we need the public then to come forward and participate with us in catching the bad guys," Jones said. "You have this piece of video, but what you really need is someone to come forward and say, 'That's Bob, that's Suzy. I know them. I saw this.' That's what we really need."
That "crowd sourcing" also resulted in misidentifications in Boston and a witch-hunt mentality that seemed reasonable to many after the bombing, but perhaps less so in more isolated crimes an incidents.
McCreary questioned whether there is a better use of funds than to put them toward cameras. She warned against the temptation of being guided by fear and said discussions at every stage of advancement is important, especially as some cities consider the use of artificial intelligence in addition to cameras and sensors.
"That's a radically different life and understanding of what it's like to be people and humans than we've ever had, so I think our expectations of privacy that start out fundamentally — that each of us have some rights to ourselves, some sense of our own dignity and being and everything — even living in a community we don't give all that up when we go out in public and we shouldn't have to," she said.
McCormack said many already relinquish their rights to privacy, intentionally or not, through the use of social media. There are also technological advances that allow for tracking and monitoring of phone calls and electronic devices that may be unknown to many in the public.
"The technology evolves much faster than people's knowledge of technology," McCormack said. "The technology is such that basically anybody can listen to anyone at any time now, so the technology has to be tightly controlled."
He understands that those who feel they have nothing to hide may not understand the concern about any type of surveillance, but said there is still the possibility for malicious misuse of information. Because of this, the primary issue and focus has to be accountability.
"That, I think, is really the key concept here, is making people who have access to the ability to listen in on our conversations, making them accountable so we know what they're doing and how they're using the information," he said.
As technology advances and public perceptions change and shift, it will come back to finding the balance between the reasonable expectation of privacy and what changes can or should be allowed.
"Whenever I give up any degree of personal privacy, I want some accountability on the part of whoever now has that information," McCormack said.
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