Transparency in Public Video Surveillance

Public Video Surveillance

Why shouldn’t public cameras have public access?

We believe that the video surveillance process should be as transparent to the citizens being surveilled as possible. Imagine walking into your local police station and seeing a bank of monitors displaying images from local video surveillance systems. While the citizen would not be able to pan, zoom, or export the video, they would be able to see what is being reviewed and remove the fear and anxiety that such a system might invoke. 

If a retail shop owner saw that his business was being over-exposed they could request an opaque ‘panel’ be digitally added to block the view into their store. This could similarly be done for personal residences or any place where a citizen’s fourth amendment right to unreasonable searches is compromised.

Additionally, the rules for – how long video is stored, who has access to it, and at what levels each person has access to – could all be well documented and published as part of the public transparency process of civic surveillance.

There are reasons for being discrete in some instances such as in special investigative instances or for business owners who might not want to make public intellectual property or trade secrets, but for small towns and police departments monitoring public spaces, there is no reason not to let the public both view and understand the civic video surveillance system.

In Guidelines for Public Video Surveillance, A Guide to Protecting Communities and Preserving Civil Liberties, The Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Initiative has formulated guidelines to assist local and state officials charged with authorizing, designing, and managing public video surveillance systems. One procedure they recommend is to, “conduct a civil liberties impact assessment and overall cost-benefit analysis through a public deliberative process that includes community input.” We agree that the public should be a part of the public surveillance system and steps should be taken to involve the public in order to add more transparency, trust, and ownership in the public of the service their community is trying to provide.