General Accounting Office

Report on Video Surveillance

Released on 27 June 2003, the General Accounting Office's report entitled Video Surveillance: Information on Law Enforcement's Use of Closed-Circuit Television to Monitor Selected Federal Property in Washington, D.C. (report number GAO-03-748) contains many findings that are very troubling to those who are opposed to the police's use of surveillance cameras in public places.

1. Unlike the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPDC), which has disclosed the locations of its surveillance cameras, the United States Parks Police (USPP) -- operator of surveillance cameras around the White House, the FDR Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans' War Memorial -- has adamantly refused to do so. According to the GAO, the USPP is concerned about vandalism and attempts to "defeat the system" (evade its purview). For the same reasons, the USPP has also refused to post any signs that indicate that surveillance cameras are in operation. (This very illogical practice places the USPP squarely at odds with the policies of the police departments in each of the four other cities that the GAO studied for the report: Baltimore, MD; Columbia, SC; Tampa, FL; and Virginia Beach VA, all of which have posted signs.) And so, unless you follow the news and/or visit websites such as this one, you wouldn't know that there are cameras being used in these areas of the nation's capital. As a result, these cameras are unlikely to produce any "deterrent" effect. But deterrence was the rationale for installing this $2 million waste of money in the first place.

2. Unlike the MPDC, which operates its cameras under the laws and regulations of the District of Columbia, and so has been required to issue protocols that govern the use of its system, the USPP's use of video surveillance isn't governed at all. No federal law or regulation concerns the use of cameras by a federal agency (the USPP is part of the Department of the Interior). And a result, up until 13 June 2003, when it finally issued a paper detailing its Closed Circuit Television Policy, the USPP operated its cameras without any internal guidelines or "management controls." But, as the GAO points out, several groups -- including the American Bar Association, the Security Industry Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, all of which are pro-surveillance -- have recommended the adoption of written operating protocols, supervisory and training requirements, public notification, and periodic audits of compliance with the protocols.

3. Neither the MPDC's regulations nor those of the USPP specify the credentials and training that are necessary to be a camera operator. As a result, there is no way to be sure that the operators know the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of their systems. Furthermore, neither the MPDC nor the USPP are audited by fully independent entities: both are expected to "police" themselves. (The GAO reports that, in Baltimore, the camera operators include both "Baltimore law enforcement personnel and staff from organizations and businesses that participate in the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.").

4. Ignoring the well-documented experiences of their counterparts in England, neither the MPDC nor the USPP have produced clear, realistic and measurable goals for their respective systems. The DC police say their system is intended to help its officers manage large crowds at celebrations and protests, and to be turned off at all other times, but they have turned it on in response to "orange" security alerts issued by the Department of Homeland Security. In its Television Policy statement, the USPP says its system will be used to "help ensure public safety and security; facilitate the detection, investigation, prevent and deterrence [sic] of terrorist attack and crime; help ensure the safety of citizens and officers; help assist in the proper allocation and deployment of law enforcement and public safety resources; and help facilitate the protection of the innocent and the apprehension and prosecution of criminals." It is clearly unrealistic to expect a single system, no matter how technologically sophisticated, to accomplish all of these "objectives." Worse still, neither the MPDC nor the USPP have any way of measuring the effectiveness of their respective systems. Despite the fact that, as the GAO points out, "researchers and others recognize the importance of measuring effectiveness [of video surveillance] to justify the potential impact on individuals' civil liberties and the [financial] costs associated with its use," neither the MPDC nor the USPP collects statistics about the numbers of arrests and convictions that can be directly attributed to their cameras, preferring instead to offer vague but reassuring anecdotes about their effectiveness. (Note well that the British Home Office cautioned the GAO that "arrest rates might [actually] increase because the CCTV cameras view more criminal activity and police are reacting to more reports originating from CCTV Control centers." According to the GAO, the Home Office "also said that increased crime rates are not necessarily bad [!] because it may mean more crimes are being reported that had previously gone undetected.")

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Ironically, perhaps, the GAO report itself is cause for concern: it is full of errors and omissions.

1. The definition of video surveillance is terrible. "CCTV," the GAO says, "is a visual surveillance technology [...] CCTV systems typically involve a dedicated communications link between cameras and monitors [that are] viewed and operated from a control room." But not all surveillance systems are CCTV. Some of them -- the wireless systems -- are open-circuit TV (OCTV). Indeed, without realizing the problems it is causing for its definition, the GAO discusses two such systems. The first allows the MPDC to "obtain real-time video images from other D.C. agencies, including the District of Columbia Schools [and] certain private entities in the D.C. metropolitan area." The second allows police officers in Columbia, South Carolina, to use laptop computers "to monitor cameras from their police cars while on patrol."

2. The GAO says that "a senior MPDC official said that MPDC's CCTV cameras are equipped with software that blocks the viewing of private areas, such as apartment windows and residential backyards" and that, "according to the Chief of Police, the United States Parks Service has taken a similar position," but it apparently doesn't have the knowledge of technology to say that the MPDC's claim is utter bullshit. No such software exists. (Note well that the USPP doesn't even have the software, but "a similar position.") There is nothing preventing MPDC and/or USPP officers from using their systems to look right through car windshields and apartment windows, thereby violating the local "Peeping Tom" laws (cf. the provisions of New York State's recently passed Stephanie's Law.)

3. The GAO seems to know nothing about face recognition software. Its report states that the surveillance system in Tampa, Florida (installed in December 1997) "was also equipped with face recognition software," but doesn't mention that the software program was terminated in August 2001 because it worked so poorly. The report also says that, "at the time of our review" -- that is, between August 2002 and May 2003 -- "MPDC and the United States Park Service did not use either of these technologies," that is, neither face nor license-plate recognition software. But the USPP has been using face recognition software in New York City (at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, both of which are national monuments) ever since May 2002. One can't help but notice that the USPP's Television Policy was distributed to high-ranking officers (Lieutenants and above) wherever they're stationed and to all New York Field Office personnel.

4. The GAO report says that the MPDC's control room, the Joint Operations Command Center, is "a secure facility operated by the MPDC, but may include staff from other federal, regional, state and local law enforcement agencies during joint operations," but fails to mention that the staff has also included members of the US military and the intelligence "community." This is a crucial omission, because it allows the report to completely sidestep the issue of the militarization of American law enforcement at all (federal, regional, state and local) levels.

-- 26 July 2003.

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