Big Brother, where art thou?

Newsom's security camera initiative raises concerns among civil libertarians


One question seemed to stand out at the San Francisco Police Commission's May 24 meeting, where it was considering the issue of security cameras being placed in high-crime neighborhoods across the city.

"Is there a plan to phase these out at any time?" commissioner Joe Veronese asked Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who was presenting his recently proposed legislation to regulate the cameras. "Or is the idea that we just have more and more of these going up?"

Mirkarimi admitted that the idea of at some point phasing out the cameras has so far not been considered by the Board of Supervisors. He told the commission that it's still too early to even determine how much the cameras would help in mitigating crime. But he added that some of his constituents who support the cameras "are very insistent that this not be layered with red tape."

Worried about privacy rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California wants the board to do away with the cameras completely and consider alternatives such as community policing. Even Mirkarimi compared the cameras to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which is getting closer to nonfiction. But he insisted to the commission that the cameras "are not a substitute to policing, whatsoever."

Mirkarimi would seem an unlikely proponent of the cameras. He's one of the most progressive supervisors on the board; yet he represents a Western Addition neighborhood with growing crime problems. Mirkarimi's aide Boris Delepine told the Guardian that the cameras were inevitable strongly pushed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and the supervisor was simply hoping to get some civil liberties protections in place before the program stretched across the city.

"We feel that the cameras are going up regardless," Delepine said, "and we'd like for there to be a public process when they do."

London has perhaps the largest number of citywide security cameras, with around 200,000; other industrialized cities are just beginning to debate and install them. The cameras raise real civil liberties questions, but supporters want their help with evidence gathering when witnesses are too afraid to step forward.

Since installation of the cameras began in San Francisco as a pilot program last July, the ACLU has pointed to a batch of studies it claims dispute any suggestion that the cameras elsewhere have either reduced crime or provided valuable evidence for criminal prosecutions, including in London.

"The ACLU is opposed to video surveillance cameras because they intrude on people's privacy and they have no proven law-enforcement benefit," Elizabeth Zitrin, a board member of the ACLU's San Francisco chapter, told the commission May 24.

Critics have acknowledged some of the protective measures that Newsom included in the original pilot program: Footage is erased after 72 hours unless it is believed to contain evidence of a crime, and where possible, cameras are not trained on individual homes. But ACLU Police Practices Policy director Mark Schlosberg told us he fears proliferation of the cameras will be impossible to stop.

"Privacy is sensitive," he said. "Once you lose it, it's very difficult to get it back."

Indeed, commissioner Veronese's question seemed to answer itself for the most part. Would there ever come a time in San Francisco when crime rates were so low that the city would remove the cameras in deference to civil liberties? Presumably not.

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