Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci: Project Green Light's end doesn't justify the means

Wednesday, March 20, 2019 - 2:40pm

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The Michigan Daily

Big Brother? Or a breakthrough in crime fighting? Detroit has joined the growing list of cities turning to surveillance cameras as a tactic in their efforts to reduce crime.

Project Green Light allows businesses to pay a fee to have surveillance cameras stream directly into city police facilities. Police monitor the footage, aiming to catch crime in real-time as well as using it to track down and arrest suspects. The program has been touted by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan as a major factor in the city’s recent crime reduction. He has used that momentum to push for a major expansion of Project Green Light which includes integrating traffic cameras as well as schools with the 500 businesses currently providing surveillance footage. Duggan has also entertained making the program mandatory for businesses open at 10 p.m.

Does Project Green Light actually reduce crime? It’s unclear. City officials say yes, pointing to a number of statistics including crime falling by 11 percent at Green Light locations from 2016 to 2017 (the city as a whole saw a 7 percent decrease in crime over the same time period). However, no robust study has been done comparing crime at Green Light and non-Green Light locations, and critics, such as Eric Williams of the ACLU, say the data presented by city officials is anecdotal. Furthermore, similar projects in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington D.C. have seen benefits diminish as the programs expanded. London, often cited as the most surveilled city in the world, has seen no significant reduction in crime since the large-scale rollout of its camera system.

The trend towards surveillance as a crime-fighting strategy isn’t confined to government. A number of startups have arisen claiming to provide protection for homeowners with “smart” video doorbells. One of the largest such companies, Ring, was recently acquired by Amazon for $1 billion. However, just as with city-wide studies, the effectiveness of home video doorbells is unclear, with some studies finding that areas with Ring doorbells saw increased crime compared to similar areas without them.

If surveillance programs do work, it’s only when they are implemented in a small, targeted way according to Eric Piza, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. When programs become too big, studies have shown residents begin to believe police are not consistently monitoring the cameras. So, by expanding Project Green Light, Detroit may eliminate any positive effects of the program.

Putting its effects on crime aside, what does increased surveillance mean for people’s privacy and civil liberties? Nothing good. Project Green Light’s combination of traffic cameras and business footage potentially opens the door for tracking citizens across the city. As people travel, inevitably passing businesses and traffic lights, police will amass data that could allow them to connect the dots on an individual’s movement with relative ease. China is already doing this, using a vast network of cameras to track Xinjiang residents.

Additionally, the use of facial recognition software to identify persons of interest could lead to misidentifications with potentially serious consequences — like when an FBI examiner using facial recognition technology incorrectly identified a bank robber. The ACLU tested Amazon’s facial recognition software, Rekognition (currently in use by a number of police departments), on members of Congress and found it matched 28 of them — disproportionately people of color — to criminal mugshots. This finding begs the question: Should a tool which perpetuates biases already plaguing the criminal justice system be used by it?

Detroit’s push to expand Project Green Light is in stark contrast to the ambiguity surrounding its effects. Millions of dollars in taxpayer money have been allocated to the program along with the typical $4,000 fee each business pays to install cameras. That’s money that could be spent on strategies that are proven to reduce crime such as community policing and better lighting, not to mention employment, housing, education and recreation programs. Instead of treating the root causes of crime, city officials are pouring money into an unproven quick-fix that opens the door for privacy and civil liberty abuses. Preventing crime should be about lifting people up, not targeting them with a dubious surveillance program whose effects are likely inconsequential.

Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci can be reached at chandrn@umich.edu.