Will the increasing deployment of police-operated cameras at major traffic light intersections erode the right to privacy, as some critics of this rapidly expanding program have contended in recent years?
At the New York headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they don't think so.
"We do not object to the practice of photographing the license plates, only, of cars that are jumping red lights," says ACLU Media Relations Director Emily Whitfield. "I think everyone wants to know that they can drive safely through an intersection, without someone running into them.
"On the other hand, we would object strongly to the idea of police taking pictures of the entire car. The benefit of actually finding out who's driving a car that runs a red light isn't worth invading the privacy of so many people."
Although the ACLU has no plans at present to challenge the constitutionality of the cameras, Whitfield warns that the public should remain vigilant about them.
"The danger here is what we call function creep, where you start out by gathering information for one purpose, and then begin using it for purposes that were never intended. Obviously, we have to guard against that."
Whitfield also points to a recent survey conducted by the New York City office of the ACLU, in which volunteers spent several days pinpointing the location of every surveillance camera they could identify in the Borough of Manhattan.
In the end, the NYCLU camera-counters spotted 2,380 cameras grinding away in the Big Apple, more than 2,000 of which were privately operated. The cameras were located on rooftops, at building entrances and atop lamp posts. More than 400 of the automatic surveillance devices were disguised inside globes that at first glance appeared to be streetlights.
"The results of that survey were astonishing," says Whitfield. "The New York ACLU created a big wall map showing all the locations of the cameras, and I can assure you that it was bristling with pins!" (The map can be found at NYC Surveillance Camera Maps.)
Whitfield said controversy has developed over the use of hidden video surveillance cameras, which are often used to protect buildings and monitor foot traffic on private premises, such as shopping malls. It even has produced a new theater troupe, known as "The Surveillance Camera Players," she said.
"It's a really neat project," says Whitfield. "This is a group of people who go in front of surveillance cameras and put on little plays and things."
If the Players' website is to be believed, they really do get a kick out of performing in front of hidden video cameras. Their web site is here: Surveillance Camera Players.
By Tom Nugent.
[Originally published 12 June 2000 in Fedbuzz. Emily Whitfield's comments about the SCP prompted a letter to her from the group. She never responded.]
Contact the Surveillance Camera Players
By e-mail SCP@notbored.org
By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998