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Too Many Unseen Cameras?

Drawing A Line

The beachfront strip along Waikiki's Kalakaua Avenue is a favorite place for shoppers or sunset-gazers in this urban paradise. But soon the sunsets and bronzed bodies won't be the only things under observation.

This month Honolulu is installing six video cameras at key points along Kalakaua Avenue to help catch petty thieves and prevent prostitution. The program is part of a sweeping trend in video surveillance, as cities and businesses across the United States and the world are turning to cameras to help stop crime, monitor workers and customers, and even check in on children in day-care centers.

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But as the different uses for video monitoring have exploded, so too have concerns that the trend has gone too far. Stories of cameras in employee bathrooms and lax laws governing video surveillance have only added to many Americans' growing discomfort about unseen high-tech intrusions - fostering a feeling that someone is always watching them. With many experts saying that the uses of video cameras will only increase, the question of where Americans will draw the line between acceptable monitoring and illegal prying is becoming more important.

Several factors are driving the rapid rise of video monitoring. Video technology has improved dramatically in quality and decreased markedly in price. Today, video cameras take crisp images and can zoom in on faces, license plates, or even pick up small letters on a package.

The lack of stringent laws governing video surveillance also make it an attractive option for businesses and city agencies. For example, it's illegal in many states to secretly tape-record a conversation, but secretly videotaping someone is perfectly legal. Moreover, economic competition and more industrial espionage have induced many companies to install cameras to try to protect their technology and to monitor their work forces. Finally, international terrorism has increased reliance on video surveillance.

As the case in Honolulu shows, many local governments see video monitoring as a potent crime fighter. Honolulu already has an eight-camera effort mounted in Chinatown, and one "camera was not on line for more than five minutes ... before we saw a drug deal going down," says Carol Costa, director of the Honolulu Office of Information and Complaint.

Indeed, according to a 1996 California Research Bureau report on public-video surveillance, the overwhelming majority of cities that use video in the US say it has helped cut crime.

But the increase in video surveillance has not come without controversy. Last year Oakland, Calif., considered and rejected video surveillance. "The police department withdrew the proposal, concluding that they could not find credible evidence that video surveillance was effective in fighting crime and that the negative impacts would outweigh any benefits," says John Crew, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who worked on the case.

According to Mr. Crew, significant public opposition to the video cameras emerged. "People, when they hear video cameras, conjure up low-tech surveillance in convenience stores and hand-held camcorders," he says. "But the current generation of video technology can follow people down the street, can peer in windows, and can print license numbers or faces."

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Abuses of video technology have become increasingly common. National food chain Dunkin' Donuts was forced to remove its video-surveillance technology when employees used it to listen in on regular customers. And in England - the most videotaped society in the world - B-grade filmmakers have raided footage from public video cameras to make risque movies, often featuring unsuspecting couples.

These abuses and other questions are fueling a backlash against video monitoring of both public and private places. According to an article in the British Journal of Criminology, statistical claims of crime reduction as a result of video monitoring were mostly "post hoc shoestring efforts by the untrained and self-interested practitioner." Critics claim that rather than reducing crime, the cameras merely shift it somewhere else.

What civil libertarians argue is that the video surveillance is having a chilling effect on society. "People have very different responses to it," says Gary Marx, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. "Some people welcome the cameras. It makes them feel more secure. Other people feel they are invaded.... They feel that when they are out in a public area, they don't want to be recorded."

A key factor is who is using the cameras and how they are being used, Dr. Marx says. "Who is going to be doing the monitoring? And how are they trained?"

Others, however, are more absolute. "Video surveillance has become the latest [quick fix] that will solve society's needs," says John Banisar, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It's seemingly mushrooming out of control without any restrictions of its use."

Yet everyone agrees that video surveillance is unlikely to decline anytime soon, and there is no move in Congress to limit private or government videotaping.

"There will always be a rationale. But is the stated rationale the real rationale and is it compelling enough?" asks Marx. "A video camera on a factory floor is very different from a video camera in an employee lounge or in a bathroom."

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