Public eyes

Our view : Police video cameras demand privacy protections

May 21, 2008

Big Brother hasn't yet arrived in Baltimore, but he's knocking on the door. There are more than 450 surveillance cameras perched around the city - high on street corner poles, spotting cars crossing the Key Bridge from an Inner Harbor rooftop, recording comings and goings in subway and light rail stations, monitoring every movement in dozens of other locations, both discreet and highly visible.

While the cameras collect a dizzying montage of the city in motion, they have been of limited use in solving crimes and have been only moderately helpful in deterring illegal conduct, security experts agree. The oldest cameras, including the ones with the flashing blue lights, are being replaced with more sophisticated, remotely monitored closed-circuit units. Police hope the newer cameras, paid for with federal Homeland Security grants, confiscated drug money and state and city funds, will prove a better deterrent and be more useful in investigations.

But before the effort to build a more effective crime-fighting camera system goes much further, there should be a public discussion of how citizens here will be protected from possible abuses. The American Civil Liberties Union argues the cameras fail to truly reduce crime and are subject to abuse by government and law-enforcement officials. It cites the case of a Washington, D.C., police officer who used the cameras to gather information on patrons of local gay clubs. Public officials in Washington have promised that the city's 5,200 cameras will be used only for legitimate public purposes and that safeguards will be in place to prevent improper use of images. Baltimore officials should share their protocols as well.

Serious spying, where individuals can be identified with the accuracy of a police lineup, is still a distant dream, security experts say. The most modern security camera systems can match the right face in a database only about 60 percent of the time in good light. Still, in England, the presence of 4.2 million cameras has some privacy-loving citizens seeking cover - under hoodies!

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