Smile! You're on Candid Surveillance

Ad Feedback - WASHINGTON - If you walk through any big city in America these days, there's a good chance you're being watched.

From Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, cities from coast to coast are installing thousands of surveillance cameras. You can find them in shopping malls, public bathrooms, airports, on street corners and even in residential neighborhoods.

Click play to hear Gordon Robertson's analysis at the end of this CBN News report.

The claim is that these cameras will help deter and idenitfy criminals while also guarding against terrorists.

Proponents point to a recent incident on a Philadelphia subway car in which a napping commuter was brutally attacked with a hammer as proof that the cameras are an invaluable crimefighting tool. The assailant quickly fled the scene--but the entire incident was captured on tape. He was indentified and arrested a few days later.

Philadelphia has spent millions on these cameras to help fight crime. So have New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C.

"We see a reduction in crime in the areas around the cameras," said Commander.Jonathan Lewin of the Chicago Police Department. "It may not be feasible to put a police officer on every corner, but some day, it may be possible to put a camera on every corner."

Who's Being Watched?

That's exactly what worries civil liberties advocates. They fear it's not just the bad guys who are being watched.

"Let's be frank about this," privacy expert Jim Harper said. "Most surveillance is of law-abiding citizens."

Harper is the director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. He says that while the use of cameras is well-intentioned, they infringe on the privacy of average Americans.

"When we walk around a city, we don't want our movements recorded," Harper said. "We want to be left well enough alone and we don't want to be subject to surveillance."

There is an argument out there that if you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide. But I think that's inconsistent with the American way of life and our principles," he said.

Cameras are no substitute for "boots on the ground," according to Harper.

"There's really nothing better than real people, real law enforcement, pulling someone over and saying 'Hey, I represent your community and what you did was wrong', rather than a 'gotcha' from a surveillance camera or a 'gotcha' from a red light camera," he said. 

Comprehensive Systems

Don't tell that to officials in Washington, D.C. They're setting up one of the most comprehensive surveillance systems in the world.

Some 5,000 surveillance cameras monitor streets, schools, housing projects, parks, and roads throughout the nation's capital. Every few seconds, a new image pops up, from a park bench to a football stadium.

Washington's Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency monitors the video from one centralized location, or "nerve center."

The agency declined our request for an interview.

Some D.C. officials believe the program is moving too quickly, without proper oversight. Others say you can't stop progress.

"We can't let the genie back in the bottle," Washington city administrator Dan Tangherlini said. "We just have to figure out how to manage and control it."

Watching Crime, Terrorism

Crime is just one reason for the growth of surveillance cameras in Washington The main concern for officials there is terrorism. The city remains the most desired target of terrorists the world over, with one possible exception: New York City.

After two major terrorist attacks in the past 15 years -- including 9/11 -- New York officials are determined to never let it happen again. One of their solutions: installing thousands of surveillance cameras around the city.

"Obviously, everyone's world changed after 9/11.," NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said. "But if you go into a bank these days, your picture is taken. If you go into a department store, your picture is taken.

And if you enter NYC via a bridge or tunnel? Same deal. It's part of a new plan called Operation Sentinel, the license plates of all cars and trucks coming into the city will be photographed. The NYPD says this will help track potential terrorists.

New Yorkers' reactions so far have been mixed.

"I think it's great," said one driver in Manhattan. "You can monitor who or what goes into the city."

"I think it's another example of increasing encroachment on our civil liberties," said a Brooklyn resident.

These arguments have been heard for years in London. It's the most surveilled city in the world, with some 10,000 cameras monitoring its citizens. The cameras helped track down the London subway bombers in 2005--but only after the attack.

"For the jihadist who is not concerned about being caught and is willing to kill themself during the execution of a bombing or any other terrorist type event, cameras are more of a forensic tool then they are a deterrent," security expert Jerry Hauer said.

"Cameras are kind of deceptive," Harper added. "Because they will show you what happened after the fact but they don't have really any value against terrorism or other significant threats."

Who's Watching the Watchers?

With so many cameras popping up, the potential for abuse is also a concern.

"Governments may use surveillance cameras, red light cameras, and speed cameras as revenue measures rather than as law enforcement measures," Harper warned. "There's a lot of debate, especially in red light areas, whether they're shortening yellow light times to increase the number of red light traffic stops and get the revenue."

As cameras pop up faster and in more places, establishing proper guidelines is a must.

"These programs need transparency," Harper said. "We need to be able to watch the watchers, and we need good assurances that data is being destroyed when it's not going to be used."

In the end, it doesn't seem to matter whether the cameras may be too costly, ineffective or too much like Big Brother.

Despite criticism, the federal government continues to award grants to cities for the installation of more high tech survelillance technology.

*Originally aired on September 23, 2008.

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CBN News
Erick Stakelbeck

Erick Stakelbeck

CBN News Reporter

CBN News is a national/international, nonprofit news organization that provides programming by cable, satellite, and the Internet, 24-hours a day. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.