Smile, you're on security camera

What would the Sons of Liberty say?
Boston's main streets are filled with hidden eyes

Private detective Rob Selevitch has been wearing out shoe leather in Boston for 25 years, interviewing witnesses and scouring crime scenes. Lately that task has been easier for one simple reason: Video cameras capture many of the city's comings and goings 24/7.

"Tell me any place, and I guarantee you there's a camera there somewhere," says Selevitch, president of the security company CEI Management Corp. and founder of the website, which represents a consortium of licensed professional investigators in the Boston area. "If you want to get technical about it, you're pretty much under surveillance all the time" [...]

Statistics are elusive. The trade organization ASIS International, which lists 33,000 members and calls itself the "preeminent organization for security professionals," says nobody tracks numbers of surveillance cameras in the U.S., though it has commissioned a study to be completed by September to measure the worldwide scope of the security industry. Latanya Sweeney, director for the Carnegie Mellon Data Privacy Lab in Pittsburgh, a think tank on the relationship between technology and privacy, says she's not aware of any such figures.

In an unofficial count last April, two members of the Surveillance Camera Players, a New York-based group that opposes the use of surveillance cameras in public places, toured Boston on foot to spot and map cameras they saw installed in public places. Armed with binoculars, the pair led six people on a survey centered in the Financial District that located 128 such surveillance cameras. Ten were in or on government buildings, the group found, while 110 were on private property. Six other cameras were on tall buildings or otherwise elevated high off the ground, while two more were on street poles -- and who knows how many more were not noticed [...]

Beware 'mission creep'

In some quarters, though, the camera eye's quiet spread is raising alarms about privacy.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, says she's concerned about "mission creep" -- cameras that are set up for one purpose, such as catching traffic scofflaws at an intersection, and are used for another, such as identifying participants in a political rally.

"The question is, who's looking at the pictures being taken and how are they using those pictures?" says Rose. "The cameras don't distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys."

The group has been vocal in its concern that the USA Patriot Act threatens civil liberties by giving new surveillance and other powers to law enforcement agencies. On its website, it warns, "The United States is at risk of turning into a full-fledged surveillance society. George Orwell's vision of 'Big Brother' has now become technologically possible."

"We have a situation where the government is increasing its power to watch the citizenry while diminishing the citizens' power to watch their government," Rose says. "The concern is that surveillance cameras that go up be used for the stated purposes they go up for, and not to invade people who have the expectation of privacy."

Boston-area YMCAs have taken their own step to protect against invasive surveillance. The use of cellular phones with cameras was banned last year from the 12 branches of the YMCA of Greater Boston, which host 100,000 visitors per year.

YMCA Vice President of External Affairs Kelley Rice says it was common sense, not any instance of locker-room mischief, that sparked the ban. "You always see stars in embarrassing situations whose pictures end up somewhere," she says. "You could see the potential for a problem here" [...]

(Written by John McElhenny, and published in the 28 March 2004 issue of The Boston Globe. Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.)

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