Big Brother Rears Head in New Push for Cameras

When San Francisco installed surveillance cameras in high-crime neighborhoods in 2005, the city faced fierce opposition from residents and civil liberties groups.

Fast-forward six years: cameras that could provide crucial evidence in criminal investigations are everywhere. Seventy-one are owned by the city. The rest, an unknown number, are on people’s cell phones and installed in hotels, restaurants and businesses.

The San Francisco Police Department now wants even more

Last week, Police Chief Gregory P. Suhr publicly encouraged businesses to install surveillance cameras as a means of fighting crime. He spoke after a camera at Lefty O’Doul’s bar recorded a man walking down Geary Street with a stolen Picasso sketch allegedly tucked under his arm.

The man was later arrested in Napa.

The apparent success story — the bar installed the camera after someone pilfered the left arm of a mannequin of baseball icon Lefty O’Doul in 2007 — has rekindled the debate over whether the cameras impinge upon civil liberties.

“Obviously technology has been a huge boon to law enforcement in solving crime; a picture is worth a thousand words,” Chief Suhr said in an interview. “As far as Big Brother watching, we’re not in the business to monitor cameras, but we’re going to look at every camera we can find to see what happened.”

Chief Suhr said police are now required to survey crime scenes for video evidence, check YouTube, and ask witnesses if they took any pictures.

But Michael Risher, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, warned that “there is a danger of hidden surveillance” with private cameras. “If we have these cameras, whether they’re government cameras or private cameras, it’s important they be out there in the open,” he said.

In 2006, officials put strict limits on who has access to videos recorded on city-owned cameras and how long those recordings can be kept.

The same cameras that can help catch criminals can also keep track of police. Recently Jeff Adachi, the city’s public defender, used private video cameras installed at residential hotels to document alleged police misconduct.

“We’ve vigorously used this evidence in court to exonerate individuals who have been wrongfully accused,” Mr. Adachi said. “Video doesn’t have a bias toward one thing or another.”

Surveillance systems cost up to $1,000 per camera.

State law prohibits cameras in private places like bathrooms. But street-facing cameras are recording all over the city, unseen by most passersby.

“I think the people of this city care enough that they aren’t going to tolerate the type of Orwellian surveillance you might see if this is taken to its limit,” Mr. Risher said. “If the benefits of these surveillance cameras are oversold, we might be facing these serious threats to our privacy.”

Big Brother Rears Head in New Push for Cameras –


Categories: physical control

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