Bluffton’s plan to install 21 security cameras in Old Town is something we reluctantly endorse — with caveautswith a caveat.
By October, town officials hope to install the cameras that can tilt, pan and zoom at Dubois Park, the Oyster Factory Park, down Calhoun Street and along May River Road from Bluffton Road to Pin Oak Street. The $95,000 cost, including $89,000 to purchase the equipment and $6,000 for electrical boxes and a secure Wi-Fi channel, will come from accommodation tax revenue (money charged on overnight lodging that visitors pay).
As we wrote in March when the idea was first discussed by Bluffton Town Council, there’s an uneasy, Orwellian feeling to indiscriminate monitoring, even if it’s happening on public streets where there’s no expectation of privacy.
And revelations by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden has made many Americans realize that inappropriate and intrusive government snooping isn’t always the fantasy of conspiracy theorists.
Media reports suggest that facial recognition programs are the wave of the future in government surveillance. Images of people collected from social media, emails, video footage and other communications can be used in sophisticated facial recognition programs and could one day revolutionize the way the NSA tracks suspected terrorists — or anyone else.
Local governments are interested too in new uses for video footage. The Seattle Police Department recently made national headlines for its plan to purchase a facial recognition software program with a federal grant so it can compare city surveillance video footage to the city’s jail mug shot database.
City leaders have also indicated that they would share the collected data with the federal government if asked to do so.
Some Seattle residents and privacy experts have rightly expressed concern that information about people who are not suspected of crimes could be gathered and misused. And we’d add that many municipalities are carefully watching Seattle and may consider similar programs.
We’re not implying that video footage of attendees at this year’s Arts and Seafood Festival will be shipped to the NSA. But it’s important to realize the collection of video footage carries privacy risks, particularly as technology advances.
To that end, we would encourage town officials to set strict parameters by which they’ll use the footage. Their plan is for the cameras to record on a 10-day loop. We would suggest that the footage be destroyed after that.
Town leaders have also said that cameras would be installed in public places and would not target individual properties. That’s good news, and we strongly urge the town to adhere to that rule.
As time goes by, additional rules that further restrict the cameras’ usage may also be necessary, and Town Council should be amenable to that. By no means should footage be sold to an outside entity. Strong restrictions should also be placed on sharing the footage.
Ultimately, we’ll have to wait and see if the Bluffton cameras serve their intended purpose of deterring crime and aiding police investigations. Some research suggests cameras don’t make public places safer; they just move crime to unmonitored public areas or inside homes and other private locations.
In any event, cameras appear to be an inevitable feature of our 21st century world no matter where we live or what they think of cameras in plain sight. Restricted usage and strict adherence to the rules should help avoid unintended consequences