The State of Surveillance in Garden City

One of the legacies of September 11th was an expanded system of state surveillance starting with the Patriot Act, which passed two months later. A lot has changed in the last 20 years – now virtually everyone carries a device (such as a cell phone) that allows the government to easily track where they are and who they contact. Much of our life is documented on social media, which is readily tracked by the government. And high quality wireless cameras have become much easier to install and operate.

I regularly canvass Garden City and, at least in the tree streets, I’m fairly certain there’s not a block you can walk down without passing by a camera that police can gain access to. The most common are Ring cameras, and Ring in particular is friendly with law enforcement. In the manor, with its numerous rental homes, there’s probably less cameras. There’s maybe a court here and there without one but you’re certainly watched on the three main roads there. Most of the time you leave your house, you’re being watched in Garden City.

That leaves the last untouched places in the area – Houston Park, Taylor Arboretum and Hepford Park. And now cameras are there too. Originally, cameras were installed in Furness Park – without a policy to govern their use – to deal with vandalism there. Eventually the cameras themselves were vandalized. My understanding is that cameras were then installed at Houston at some point to attempt to track homeless people living in the park – there’s been no public disclosure of this camera use that I’m aware of. Then in Sapovitts cameras were installed at resident’s request due to vandalism and gunfire there. Now due to vandalism, the cameras are coming to Hepford. The description of the vandalism at the township meeting seemed a bit over the top to try to justify the cameras, especially given that those responsible were tracked down without cameras.

There are a number of cases against installing these cameras. First, the cost. These are not $50 cameras like the ones people purchase for their homes. The cost for Hepford’s new cameras is $2,500 and I’m assuming there’s a cost to maintaining access to them and data storage. That’s probably more than the township spent on any other improvements at Hepford this past year.

The second is that there’s little evidence these cameras are effective. The Urban Institute’s report on camera use by police (and supported by other articles I read) is that small numbers of cameras not actively monitored have no statistically significant effect on crime. The report suggests that cameras can either be effective or respect privacy, there’s not a happy medium. Camera use is fairly new in the township and even before camera installation incidents in the township were so infrequent that it will be hard to judge camera effectiveness. It will likely take years to find how the pattern of crime in the township changes. The Urban Institute’s report said that police “felt” the cameras were a crime deterrent, “raised community awareness” and gave the “perception of safety”. That is, like so much post-Patriot Act activities, they can be security theater.

Finally, ubiquitous cameras are what we expect of totalitarian regimes. Certainly China and North Korea make extensive use of them to control their citizens. Now we’re installing cameras in our common public spaces , so that gatherings there can be monitored by the state. The township’s policy explicitly states that monitoring such constitutionally protected assemblies is the purpose of these cameras.

Maybe the public debate over cameras has already been argued and lost, certainly there’s been no outrage so far. The false sense of security and ease of deployment has overcome the philosophical objections and lack of evidence of effectiveness. Now, as Orwell wrote,

You had to live–did live, from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

And now, with modern cameras, there is no privacy even in darkness.

Categories: Government