Security cameras make us feel safe, but are they worthy of attack?
Internet cameras like Amazon’s Color come at a high price for our privacy.
Brian X. Chen has covered consumer technology for The Times for more than a decade. They are resuming their column to focus on the social implications of the technology we use.
I’ve always been inspired by webcams that watch any move. When I lived in a San Francisco suburb a few years ago, my camera saw all the flavours of urban crime, from amateur fireworks shows to street fights. When I moved to the suburbs, my camera became a documentary expert on the nature of local animals, like the deer that eats my rose meat as soon as it blooms.
Recently I forced myself to weigh the potential privacy cost of this seemingly harmless surveillance gadget compared to the benefits it would bring — and I decided to unplug my camera.
That’s because San Francisco, a long-time progressive capital and a haven for technicians, is about to launch a city-wide surveillance experiment that privacy experts warn could set a dangerous precedent. This marks an important moment in which anyone who owns a security camera, including popular devices like Amazon’s Color and Google’s NestCam, should stop to consider some important questions: What are we really getting out of these cameras? What are we giving? Is the trade worth it?
First, let me explain what’s going on in San Francisco. This week, the city will promulgate its new camera ordinance, which aims to help police investigate crimes. The law, drafted by the city’s mayor, London Brad, gives police the right to request direct access to footage of privately owned internet cameras.
In the past, police could request recorded footage from owners of internet cameras, or they could ask for data from technology companies. Police say accessing the footage directly will allow them to respond to crimes committed in real time.
After more than a dozen interviews with privacy experts, academics, representatives of tech companies, and legislative authors, I have come to the conclusion that the ordinance’s near-term impact on consumer privacy will be minimal due to limitations in technology. But the implications of the increasingly tight relationship between tech corporations and government agencies should force us to seriously examine how we use our cameras — so that we can protect our privacy in the long run.
San Francisco’s Camera Ordinance serves as an important lens through which to review these questions and the current debate around surveillance.
Supporters of the camera program say it aims to make the public safer. Officials at the mayor’s office have cited examples such as the city’s Western Edition District, where shootings were widespread in the 1990s but declined after city-owned cameras were installed in the mid-2000s. They also point to cases in which crimes caused by cameras have been solved, such as in San Jose, California, where surveillance footage helped police identify a gang accused of robbing a bakery in August.
”This is another means to address major public security challenges,” said Parisa Safarzadeh, the mayor’s press secretary. We want to hold those who break the law accountable.
Opponents of ordinances such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation say research shows cameras do little to reduce crime. Cameras installed in two private apartment complexes in New York City have proved ineffective in preventing crime, a New York University study has found.
Matt Goriglia, the foundation’s policy analyst, who publicly protested before the law was passed by the city’s board of supervisors by a vote of 7 to 4, said the San Francisco ordinance threatens consumer privacy. He said that although the law requires the police to seek permission from camera owners before watching live footage, the police have been able to get the color recordings directly from Amazon.
A spokesman for Rang confirmed that the company provided camera data to law enforcement when court orders were needed and that it provided footage to police in extreme cases such as kidnapping without a court order.
The San Francisco ordinance probably won’t have an immediate impact on many people’s cameras. This is because the most popular devices like Color and NestCam lack a software feature that enables a police officer to tap into the camera to watch live footage of it. (According to my conversation with the mayor’s office, the authors of the legislation were unaware of this limitation.)
It’s unclear whether tech companies will eventually design such a feature. Amazon and Google say they have no plans to do so.
Immediately the San Francisco Police Department will be able to request direct access to cameras owned by some businesses.
But many privacy experts have warned against negligence. Now that there is legislative language that allows police to request direct access to camera technology, the concern is that the police will pressure tech companies to cooperate.
”These companies are incredibly eager to work with law enforcement and develop features of their choice,” Said Mr. Goreglia. “If the San Francisco Police Department comes to Amazon tomorrow and says if you’re interested in creating a ‘Share Live Feed’ feature, I wouldn’t be surprised at least if Amazon complies.”
Shushna Zubov, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, warns that San Francisco has voluntarily created an environment in which public power and private power are combined. As long as the government continues to depend on tech companies, there will be no law to prevent collection of this data, he said.
”This state of fusion – this is the day america will become like China,” he said.
So where does this leave us, the camera owners? What do cameras do for us, and what should we do with them if there are long-term concerns about privacy?
It helps to see the data. Some of the most comprehensive research on camera surveillance to date found that the presence of cameras led to a slight reduction in crime. The study, led by a team of researchers from The City University of New York, Northeastern University and The University of Cambridge, examined the impact of closed circuit television networks on crime trends in countries such as the UK and South Korea for 40 years. Overall, there was a 13 per cent decline in crime in CCTV areas.
According to the study, cameras were effective as preventing crimes such as car theft and property theft, but they had no significant effect on violent crime.
Alana Solanier, a professor of sociology and criminologist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, suggested looking at it this way: A person who commits a theft at home is more aware of surveillance cameras than two people fighting outside a nightclub.
”A camera probably won’t act as a deterrent for someone who isn’t logically thinking if they want to go through this kind of violence,” he said. That’s why it may be useful in some contexts and less useful in other contexts.
So a security camera can serve as a somewhat useful deterrent if your main goal is to prevent property crimes, such as break-ins and porch theft. But if your goal is to keep yourself safe in a neighborhood with violent crime, it probably won’t help much. (However, this can help the police investigate a crime.)
”If you fear that the police may access your camera without your permission, there are ways to address these concerns, such as using an offline camera that records a physical storage drive or a picture card in your home,” said Community College Professor Chris Gilliard.
”There’s a clear difference between having yourself and your community in the Amazon Web and having cameras where you completely control the footage,” he said.
In addition, you can avoid using cameras to monitor interior spaces like bedrooms, and you can disable their microphones.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m more concerned about how fast our technology can change than I’m about deer eating their flowers. I’ll plug my camera in for a long time when I get out of the house, like when I go on vacation. However, the rest of the time, I’ll keep it unplugged, sitting on my window as a visual deterrent for porch pirates, but offering nothing for police to spy on.