Private cameras or police cameras?

THE US is home to an estimated 50 million closed-circuit TV cameras, roughly as many per capita as China. Many are owned by people or companies, not the government. But as reports, many police departments can gain access to the images through partnerships with private companies, and that troubles some civil rights activists.

Civil rights activists warn that once installed, the cameras are often used for other tasks, like monitoring protests, and can become a system of warrantless surveillance, particularly for communities of colour.

Newark, Baltimore, San Francisco, and Detroit each have some form of public-private camera system. Each is different. In Newark, for example, residents are encouraged to view CCTV footage themselves and report crimes to law enforcement.

In 2016, Detroit police observed a startling pattern in the city. Not only was crime rising but it was rising most quickly near petrol stations. One-fourth of all violent crimes in the city between 10 pm and 8 am occurred within 200 metres of a petrol station. The police contacted eight petrol stations, installing CCTV cameras that streamed real-time footage directly to them. Livestreaming allowed for faster response times and “virtual patrols”, where officers scanned camera footage during late-night hours.

Since that pilot, the Detroit Police Department has expanded the network, calling it Project Green Light. In four years, Project Green Light has grown to 700 cameras at 500 businesses throughout the city. But the expansion worries activists who say the police use it for more than patrolling petrol stations. Last year, Mayor Mike Duggan announced plans to add traffic cameras to the project, bringing the total to more than 1,000 cameras.

Police can analyse images captured by the cameras with facial-recognition software and other technologies, like vehicle-registration-reading software.

Since 2012, cryptocurrency mogul Chris Larsen has spent more than $4 million to help install more than 1,000 cameras in San Francisco’s neighbourhoods, including the busy Union Square business district. The San Francisco Police Department maintains a database of the cameras, their owners, and their locations, reaching out to request footage if they suspect a crime.

Unlike in Detroit, anyone can request the footage, including defence lawyers. Police, too, request footage instead of having instantaneous access. While Detroit businesses must pay installation fees on police-approved cameras, San Francisco businesses can use their own cameras and pay nothing.

But this approach, too, alarms some privacy advocates. In late May and early June, as many as 10,000 people attended some of the George Floyd protests throughout San Francisco. While the camera system was created to deter property violence, the police took a broader approach to prevent looting. Rather than respond to specific complaints of property damage, the police obtained real-time access to the entire system, capturing footage of everyone in the area.


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