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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Take Steps to Prevent Surveillance Abuse

Several months ago, the North Hempstead town government opened an impressive, $26 million community center on Garden Street in the New Cassel section of Westbury. It houses programs for young people and seniors, but the building was constructed with an additional purpose. Already nicknamed “The Bunker” by insiders, the building also houses the town’s public safety and emergency offices. This includes a basement command center that will be fed images from as many as 1,000 high-resolution video surveillance cameras in town buildings, parks and other facilities.

Because this Bunker will act as a working showcase to sell the system to other local governments, the town is getting key elements at half price (last May, the Town Board authorized $456,000 for video cameras and software). Instant facial recognition software is also being utilized to prevent unauthorized entry into certain areas of buildings.

All across this country and this state, in places you may not expect, the public is being recorded by cameras and often analyzed by sophisticated software matched against huge databases for data mining. In New York, from Lake Placid to Elmira, small, wide-angle, cameras with night vision line Main Streets and downtown areas. If you’re heading way upstate this weekend to visit the popular Saranac Lake Winter Festival, smile for the little birdies. In some places, police supplement their own camera feeds by tapping into cameras on private property.

There may be no legal expectation of privacy on public property, but local governments own the land and rights of way beneath poles, railroads, sidewalks, streets and thousands of little patches of land right in the middle of neighborhoods. Two weeks ago, police in Los Angeles unveiled an impressive wireless surveillance system deployed in two residential neighborhoods. Using high-resolution camera lenses typical to these systems, it can perform facial recognition at up to 600 feet. The line between public property and what’s near it is getting blurry.

Almost any high-resolution digital camera can be linked to biometric recognition software. Some cameras are equipped with audio. Any government unit deploying this type of technology should first take steps to prevent or identify overuse or abuse. Anyone coming near the control center must understand any consequences. There are existing models.

The little city of Middletown in Orange County posts online a comprehensive policy on the use of its surveillance cameras. It includes requirements for training and oversight of personnel with access to the video feed. There are reasonable time limits on retention of images, and specific prohibitions on voyeurism (such as continuously viewing “public displays of affection”) and on gossiping about what is observed. State Assembly bill A.294, versions of which actually passed the Assembly in 2008 and 2009 but which has no Senate sponsor, would require basic privacy protections by state and local agencies using closed-circuit television. The legal language can be adapted by any of our local governments right now, before any irretrievable steps are taken.

Once the system is in place, that shouldn’t be the end of it. There should be ongoing oversight and objective evaluation of what is going on.

Many malls, restaurants and office buildings now have sophisticated surveillance technology. Albany County has had a privacy protection law for these situations since 2007.    

Every digital scrap of information about us is being collected at multiple levels, often being sold or distributed in unknown ways. Identification of who we are and what we do is going to be part of our lives, always. We need to get a handle on some part of this, even if it’s just at the level of our local street or our front yard, or a place we just like to sit and relax.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net