March 22, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Being watched 

Welcome to the surveillance society

Withdrawing money from your ATM, driving on I-590, ordering fast food, making a quick stop at the liquor store on the way home: private moments are becoming more public than you might think. You're being taped --- and it's happening so unobtrusively that you're probably not aware of it.

What's more, it's legal, and it's only the beginning.

Here in Rochester, and in communities across the country, video surveillance is used by almost every type of business and by many government agencies. "Video-surveillance technology is the fastest-growing segment of the security business, with video over the web being the biggest trend," says Steven Lasky, editor of Video Technology & Design. Sales for 2005, says Lasky, were $1.1 billion and are expected to hit $11 billion by end of the decade.

Businesses can spend from as little as $300 to more than six figures on a single security camera. Today much of the technology is digital, making images exceptionally clear and easy to e-mail and store.

And as the technology has continued to improve, the ways to use strategically placed video cameras have multiplied. Retailers use the cameras to prevent theft but also to lower risks of liability from customers who may be injured on their premises. Employers are using the cameras to monitor employee productivity. Government agencies like the Monroe County Department of Transportation use them to monitor traffic flow and make traffic-signal adjustments.

"Whenever you go into a store or an office building and you see those little black bubbles built into the ceiling, those are usually pan-tilt-and-zoom cameras," says David Jefferson, a consultant with Tyte Securities, a Pittsford-based surveillance company. "The pan-tilts are just one type, and they are a little more visible. Some you'll never see, but they're there. And the technology is so good now that you can read a license plate from a mile away. They even record in near total darkness."

Jefferson rattles off the different ways his clients use video surveillance: the maintenance engineer who looks outside his apartment building at 4 a.m. to decide whether he needs to call a snow plow; the pharmacist who monitors exactly how many pills went into each prescription and who signed for it; hospital nursing stations watching over patients with critical-care needs: the list seems endless.

"You can view from any location you want," Jefferson says. "A manager can be sitting in his office here in Brighton and watch production in his plant halfway across the world."

Surveillance cameras are so prevalent, he says, that the average person probably passes by about 100 in a day. If you have a job that requires a lot of air travel, the number could be much higher.

"This isn't just for banks and big shopping malls anymore," he says. "Even small-business owners understand what happens when they are exposed. The biggest risk of theft or damage, sorry to say, comes from their own employees. This is like having eyes without really being there. It's like an electronic insurance policy."

"It's like record keeping," says Paul Marone, owner of East Avenue Auto in the city. Marone has had his video surveillance system for three years. "If we need to verify some information, like what took place on the lot with a certain vehicle, we can actually go to it and see what happened," he says. "As a small [business] guy, an alarm is not enough. You need both. It's expensive, but it's an investment you have to make."

Producing evidence that has a "dramatic impact in the courtroom" is another big reason businesses are investing in video surveillance, says Steven Modica, an attorney who deals extensively with insurance companies.

"Probably 99 percent of the people out there are good people, but there is that one percent that tries to cheat the system," he says. "There's that guy that says he can't work and is on long-term disability, but there he is on tape washing his car and mowing his lawn. Once he sees himself on tape, he knows just what it's going to look like in a courtroom."

Once we leave our homes, we abandon our legal right not to be viewed, photographed, or taped.In legal terms, we've entered the public sphere. Rest rooms, locker rooms, and fitting rooms are generally considered exceptions to the rule. The other exception involves a government agency taping a private citizen for specific reasons, which usually requires a warrant.

"Not only are most people surprised to learn how often they are being taped," says Modica, "people think that it's somehow a crime, that it's illegal. And it may feel that way, but it's not. Once you go out into the public, you can be taped. You could go to a school board meeting, for example, and you can be rather outspoken. Let's say your boss at Kodak sees it and he doesn't like what he saw. He feels your actions compromised the company and he fires you. Being taped in that setting wasn't illegal."

When law enforcement tapes a person in public as part of an investigation, that's a different matter, says Modica: "There is a higher standard there. A warrant means that a judge agrees with the police officer that there is sufficient reason to suspect this individual of committing a crime, but no consent is required by the person who is being taped."

"Video surveillance is a strange thing," he says. "You have those people that say, well, if you're not doing anything wrong, it shouldn't matter. But it does concern me. It is becoming more and more intrusive. You have to wonder where this is all heading."

By the early 90's, video cameras, including those designed for surveillance, were entering the consumer market.Sixteen years ago, Robert Crowley was selling caller-ID units, and he says the experience tipped him off to the public's emerging interest in surveillance. He has since opened Spy Outlet stores in Rochester and Buffalo, and one is in the works for Syracuse. Spy Outlet is a kind of magic shop, part electronic gadgetry and part deception know-how. Crowley's clients include police officers, private investigators, doctors, attorneys, small-business owners --- and possibly your next-door neighbor. Crowley sells everything from books with titles like "Privacy for Sale" and "Hidden in Plain Sight" to pocket-pen cameras and safes that look like shaving-cream cans.

"This is a business driven by fear and paranoia," he says. "Years ago we had a greater sense of community. We had a need to get along. Now you have the neighbor wars and the couple that doesn't trust the housekeeper. This confirms what people suspect. I get people all the time who come in just to show me what they have caught on tape."

But the continuous oversight of video cameras, some would argue, can also be a good thing. High on the tops of poles along I-590 and I-490 are clusters of cameras that the Monroe County Department of Transportation uses to manage traffic flow. The cameras transmit a constant stream of images back to the DOT's regional operations center on Scottsville Road. Right now, eight pan-tilt-zoom cameras are delivering a live feed to operators who work around the clock trying to reduce delays and unsnarl traffic due to accidents and storms. They've worked so well that the DOT is adding 17 more cameras by the end of 2007, at a cost of $40,000 a camera.

The changing scenes of cars and trucks, some inching along in stops and starts, flash across a wide screen in the middle of the operations center. On large maps, city and county traffic signals light up in bright green. The pictures are perfectly clear, and it wouldn't be hard to identify an individual driver. But DOT manager James Willer says the center has absolutely no role in tracking individual vehicles or recording traffic violations.

"This is strictly incident driven," he says. "When something happens, we don't always see it as it occurs, but we can see what it's doing to traffic in all directions. If there's an accident on 590, we'll see what that is doing to the BayBridge, and we can alert our message boards so drivers know in advance there's a problem and how to avoid it. We don't want the situation getting any worse. And it's the cameras that allow us to do this."

Safety is also the reason for video surveillance at Tops Markets and Martin Superfoods Stores. "It's is part of the overall security package," says company spokesperson Tracy Pawelski. "We use them for training and reviewing incidents and, yes, we do share them with law enforcement with some regularity. Large volumes of people go in and out of our stores every day, and customers expect safety."

Pawelski says she has never heard of a customer inquiring about whether they are being taped while in one of her stores.

"I think they are more interested in things like lighting and the human aspect: is there someone there that they can turn to if there's a problem," she says.

Wilmorite, the company that manages PittsfordPlaza and Marketplace, Greece, and Eastview Malls, puts video surveillance at the top of its security program.

"We probably have invested more in video surveillance than most mall security management," says Doug Swetman, Wilmorite's director of security. "We have upgraded from the old video to digital, and in several of the malls, the surveillance is directly linked to a police officer right on location at the mall. We keep the data. If there is a theft, an injury, or an accident in the parking lot, we have to have the incident on tape for civil or criminal court cases. But ultimately, it is done to protect our customers."

Even though the FBI's crime reports have shown a steady decreasein violent crime across the US during the last 10 years, the number of cities using video cameras in public places to deter crime is increasing, according to Geoff Kohl, editor for Security Info Watch, an industry trade magazine.

"We know there is an increase, but we don't know by how much," says Kohl. "We don't know how much money they are spending on it, because no one likes to reveal these numbers."

Police in New York and Niagara Falls are placing cameras where drug or gang activity is suspected. But it's too early to know what impact it may be having. One report released in 2004 by the California Department of Justice indicates that the results appear to be mixed.

So far, Rochester's police department has not taken this route, despite its high murder and drug-related crime rates.

"We are not to that point yet" says Sgt. Dave Foyer, a special investigator for the RPD. "Obviously with the amount of violence and stuff we've been dealing with, there has been a lot of talk about it. But we're not there yet, not at this time."

Foyer says the city and the police department are sensitive to concerns about invasion of privacy.

"I know everyone is worried that Big Brother could be watching you," he says. "But I think the concern that government is watching you is a little exaggerated. Obviously we want to protect people, but I think there is a greater threat of criminals trying to figure out what's in your bank account or how much Wal-Mart stock you have through your computer. That is a greater and more realistic threat to your privacy."

Foyer also believes people are much more likely to be observed on camera or taped by private businesses than by government entities. But that could be a result of more police urging business owners to consider installing video cameras if they don't already have them.

Weighing the benefits of video surveillance against the dangers of its misuse is a public debate that is overdue, says Barbara de Leeuw, executive director for the Rochester chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"When we know we are being videotaped or watched, studies show that we behave differently," she says. "This could have a chilling effect on our democracy as we know it. I have no objections with high-profile, specific uses --- city hall, the water authority, the airport. That is to be expected, to some degree. But the public needs to be assured that there are checks and balances in place to prevent mission creep."

It's being taped when we aren't expecting it that has de Leeuw worried. The public should be concerned about who is viewing the tapes and what happens to them, she says.

"Say I go to Wegmans, and I sign up for a Shoppers Club Card," says de Leeuw. "I have signed a piece of paper. I have agreed to give up some of my privacy, so when I purchase cat food, for example, and I receive a coupon for more cat food with my receipt, I agreed to let them use information about my shopping habits. But video surveillance is an entirely different thing. I am not agreeing to that. I am not even sure it is happening --- and right there is the problem. I should be. It's the easing in, that subtle erosion of privacy that seems so harmless. But what is it doing to our democracy?"

De Leeuw is also concerned about the secrecy that seems inherent to surveillance. A Wegmans spokesperson, for example, declined to offer any information for this article about the company's use of video surveillance. "We don't see where there is anything to be gained by talking about this," she said. And a spokesperson for the city declined to offer any information about its use of video surveillance in public spaces like CobbsHillPark.

"There are times when some of this secrecy can be justified," de Leeuw says. "But when surveillance becomes ubiquitous and ever present, yet we can't talk about it, then there's a problem. In the case of government, we should at least be able to access generic information. Not only are we [taxpayers] paying for it, but how can the public determine its efficacy otherwise?"

"A lot of case law is way behind the technology," says James Ross, an attorney and professor at SUNY Brockport. Ross has written extensively about the Patriot Act, and he says surveillance technology is advancing at such a rapid pace that it is changing the definition of public sphere.

"So far, the courts have been reluctant to see any unreasonable intrusion [of privacy] once the person is out of their private domain," he says. "But what exactly is one's private domain is becoming fuzzy. Is it your home? Is it your office? Is it your home-office? Is it your cell phone? Is it your TV? It's hard to say. But the big concern is what happens when these technologies begin to converge."

"New York City already has video surveillance and facial recognition in Times Square," says Ross. "When this [information] starts combining with other data bases, you can begin to see how it has the ability to stifle education and freedom of thought. Now there is fear of checking out a library book on Islam or the Koran because people might think you're a terrorist. It's not just you that entered out into the public domain, but so has all of this information [about you]. I may not want the public to know that I am seeing a marriage counselor or I visited a strip bar or I am being treated for cancer at Rochester General."

Ross says he is not seeing the synergy of shared information on the scale that is being developed in Europe, but he suspects we could be on the same path.

"You have Great Britain, the same country that gave us George Orwell, creating its 'ring of steel' around London," he says. "Between all the cameras they have circling that city, citizen ID cards, and tracking devices in cars, they will know every person driving in and out of there, who they are, where they went, and when they left. I don't know if that is what America wants. It would certainly redefine what we think of as freedom."

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