Skip to main content
Exploring what’s next in tech – Insights, information, and ideas for today’s IT and business leaders

Public video surveillance: Smile! You're on municipal camera!

Whenever you travel through a city, hundreds of cameras and other sensors may be recording your every move. Despite the important real-world uses of public cameras, the surveillance can feel slightly creepy. How do we keep the value and reduce the creepiness factor?

While cameras and sensors can help keep people safe in smart cities, it’s also important to protect people’s privacy.

As with most human efforts, the lofty goal is to improve the quality of life. For example, cities deploy cameras to protect the populace, or at least collect data to serve as evidence in cases of wrongdoing. But in planning smart cities, urban designers have to consider how that power might be misapplied and guard against those circumstances. It’s a common theme in dystopian science fiction and thrillers: Someone must evade a network of cameras and other sensors to carry out their plans.

Lest you think this is an old story: While cameras have been used for years, newer tools can extend them to perform other useful functions. For example, facial-recognition software can check attendance in a school lecture hall. The data collected can track the number of people entering a facility to determine if a room needs to be closed or the event needs to be moved to a larger location, points out Munir Ismet, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s global head of digital government. Cameras could also be used to count the number of people coming to a museum or other attraction and thus alert shop owners and restaurants of an influx.

Municipal cameras on the highway can help measure traffic flow and look for congestion to alert first responders or identify the need for traffic controllers. “The idea is to take that data and send that information to electronic signs on the motorway so you can close roads and direct traffic away from the congested area,” Ismet says.

In regions of unrest, cameras have a security role as well. For example, cameras could spot local trucks entering an army base that are bypassing a certain area rather than heading straight. Such behavior could indicate an improvised explosive device in that area, Ismet says. Similarly, cameras can spot parcels or backpacks left in critical areas such as a train station or a campus, alerting security teams to investigate.

All are great goals. But even when video surveillance is used for the right purposes, it raises privacy questions.

A painful recent example

The mass shooting in Las Vegas highlighted how often someone is watching. Casinos often use heavy camera surveillance to spot people who are cheating or stealing, as well as to protect the casino against personal injury lawsuits. “A typical facility might be armed with thousands of cameras, which watch gamblers as they enter, while they play, and when they leave,” according to a Los Angeles Times article. “The footage is stored as potential evidence and monitored by internal security forces who are prepared to dispatch a response within moments in case of problems.”

For example, Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock spent roughly a week at the Mandalay Bay hotel. During that time, he was captured on surveillance cameras about 200 times, according to law enforcement personnel. The footage helped investigators determine that Paddock probably didn’t have an accomplice, because he was always shown alone.

One takeaway is that the surveillance didn't set off any kind of useful alerts. But the recordings also demonstrate the extent to which people in cities are constantly under surveillance, even when they don’t realize it, whether it’s by video, photograph, or audio.

“The state collects vast amounts of information on its own through intelligence services, law enforcement, and regulatory arms,” says Alexander Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for open government. Video cameras are particularly problematic, he says, whether footage is collected on a stationary camera, an employee’s body camera, or a drone, especially if the video then becomes publicly available. “It’s a dystopian idea to do what The Circle describes: Put a camera on someone and they live-shoot everything they see,” he says. “Unredacted live streams have a clear and demonstrable potential to create negative privacy and secure impacts on the public.” In fact, if not protected, the cameras themselves can be a security risk.

This may be more of an issue in some regions than in others. Cities vary in how many cameras they install. “In France, the number of cameras in the streets is less than in the U.K.,” Ismet says. “In the U.K., they can pinpoint every minute of my move.”

While cities justify the use of cameras and sensors to keep their citizens safer, critics say they violate law-abiding people’s constitutional rights to assemble, as well as their simple right to privacy as they travel around the city going about their business. This becomes even more of an issue as facial-recognition software improves.

Demonstrating the problem

As an example, some people have used video footage and photographs to identify people who appeared in demonstrations and threaten their livelihood. But people who demonstrate in public have to expect that, says Michael Morisy, executive director for MuckRock, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, nonprofit that helps media and citizens file public records requests. “You have the right to publicly protest and demonstrate,” Morisy says. “Others have the right to take note of what happens in the public sphere. Participating in democracy is a public act.”

Citizens have fought the identification efforts in some cities. For example, Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center was intended to use a variety of surveillance tactics, ostensibly for public safety. But when citizens learned that political protesters might also be targeted, they went to city hall and eventually had the project shut down.

Cameras can also have other purposes. Ostensibly in the name of safety, a number of cities, including New Orleans, have installed so-called red-light cameras, which automatically take pictures of cars that run red lights, as well as speed sensors to detect speeding, using the evidence to send tickets to the owners of those cars. Critics of the programs say cities’ interests are in revenue, not safety. They claim cities are placing the cameras and sensors not at the most dangerous intersections but in areas where they are most likely to catch people. It also entices a city to install cameras to maintain the revenue stream it’s come to depend on, rather than to prevent harm. In fact, some studies have shown that red-light cameras actually increase accidents. Los Angeles removed its cameras as the result of citizen outcry.

A number of cities set up license plate recording systems only to be surprised at what could be found out—such as the minute-by-minute whereabouts of the Minneapolis mayor, for example. Boston shut down its system after a MuckRock investigation on the limitations of the technology, such as not differentiating between states.

Protecting the data and citizen privacy too

Any urban planning effort needs to take into account the things that can go wrong, as well as the many ways in which cameras truly can serve city residents. For example, license-plate recording systems usually make the data they collect anonymous, says Ismet. “Most of the data is providing information to drivers and moving them into the right direction, rather than recording plates or names,” he says.

One place to start may be the ACLU guidelines in regard to video on drones, which applies to similar municipal video efforts. Despite their beneficial uses in search-and-rescue missions, scientific research, and mapping, organizations need to develop drone projects to avoid invasion of privacy, argues the ACLU. Among the safeguards discussed:

  • Usage limits: When may law enforcement deploy a drone?
  • Data retention: When and for how long should images be retained?
  • Usage policy: The public’s representatives should write open and transparent policies, not police departments. For accountability, use of domestic drones should be subject to open audits and proper oversight.
  • Weapons ban: Domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons.

Ultimately, the issue is not that of the camera or sensor itself, but the regulatory environment, notes Ismet. “The technologies should be done using the regulatory agencies in those countries to protect privacy,” he says. “We rely on the fact that regulations exist and the users of those devices will adhere to regulations.”

Public video surveillance: Lessons for leaders

  • When placing video technology, keep privacy in mind. Make sure cameras aren’t pointing into private property; focus on the intersection rather than the people driving up the street.
  • Look for ways to anonymize user data rather than making citizens’ imagery generally available.
  • Video technology is cool and all, but don’t get carried away. Keep in mind that some people don’t want their every move recorded, and that needs to be OK.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.