Small US Town First to Be Closely Watched by Private Network of Cameras

The growing number of closed-circuit cameras that monitor Lancaster, Pa., are run by a private group of citizens, unlike the U.K.'s government-run CCTV system.

An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union told the LA Times that she thought the closed circuit camera system in Lancaster was, “such a phenomenally bad idea that it is stunning to me.” The reason? It is run by a private nonprofit group that does not directly report to any government agency.

The group, the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition, is funded by private donations and put up its first camera in 2004. According to the LA Times, the Coalition hires private citizens to monitor the activity caught on camera and report any suspicious acitivity to police. This year, the Coalition will add almost 90 more cameras to its network.

Although proponents of the cameras point out that they have helped with the prosecution of crimes such as murder, assault, prostitution and public drunkenness, the crime rate in Lancaster actually rose while the cameras were being used.

The executive director of the coalition told the LA Times that Lancaster may be the most watched city in the United States per capita.

The U.K. is widely known as one of the most monitored places on Earth, with older estimates putting the number of closed circuit cameras at roughly 4.8 million, according to The Guardian. According to a 2002 article from BBC News, a U.K. citizen is caught on tape 300 times a day.

The U.K. has been experimenting with closed circuit television surveillance since the 1960s, and uses the footage to help capture criminals in the act, look for potential terrorists, and locate wanted or missing persons. Although some of the cameras can zoom in and identify a face at 75 meters, a recent report found that 80 percent of the footage captured is of too poor quality to use in crime fighting, according to The Guardian.

As a means of deterring crime, the BBC reported that only about half of the cities with CCTV saw a decrease in crime, with some cities even seeing an increase in crime during the use of CCTV. Though according to the Home Office, the BBC reported that having footage of a crime often results in a criminal pleading guilty, which saves the government money in court costs.

Hundreds of cities in the United States use camera networks for crime prevention, according to the LA Times, including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Boston. New York City is looking to expand its network of cameras, which started by covering the financial district of lower Manhattan. According to City Limits, the NYPD is looking for federal funds to help purchase more cameras. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that the cameras may someday cover the entire borough of Manhattan.

According to the LA Times, a UC Berkeley study found that the cameras installed in San Francisco may have helped prevent property crimes, but had little or no effect on violent crimes. Capturing images of people, even in public areas, does not come without controversy. According to City Limits, in New York, the Civil Liberties Union has taken legal action against the NYPD about the inability to get information about the video surveillance. 

In some U.S. cities the cameras have been rejected. Cambridge, Ma., decided not to use cameras it had purchased in an effort to preserve the privacy of its citizens, the LA Times reported. Some residents of Lancaster are threatening to move out of town if its network of cameras continues to grow.

And a newer technology has seen similar reactions. Google Maps Street View has been highly criticized as an invasion of privacy. This addition to Google Maps provides eye-level views of many streets in the United States and Europe. The images are taken from cars driving along public streets, but they have inadvertently caught private moments such as the interior of a house, burglar activity and people visiting strip clubs. One couple even sued Google for invasion of privacy, but lost. (Finding Dulcinea, 6.24.2009, Haley A. Lovett)   

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