Amidst the smoldering wreckage of privacy and the Fourth Amendment left behind by the misuse of technology and a post-Sept. 11 mentality, it seems almost trite to advise people that, “those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither,” as Benjamin Franklin once put it.

In a world where it can be assumed that your text messages are being read by some spy at the National Security Agency (if you haven’t already updated the whole world via Facebook or Twitter), it may seem like the fight to maintain some semblance of privacy is over or at least futile. Thankfully, there are some areas of our private lives where there is still time for proactive action. The Ann Arbor Freedom From Surveillance Ordinance takes steps to protect the privacy of individuals and allow the police reasonable access to surveillance.

The use of surveillance cameras as a means to curb crime is nothing new. Private institutions and businesses as well as governments and law enforcement have used these cameras for years to observe their customers and constituents. These invasions of privacy are generally justified through ex post facto explanations that these cameras, while intrusive, are worthwhile because of their supposed ability to prevent and help solve crimes.

This claim is rarely given close scrutiny. When you look at the sum of available empirical evidence, it becomes clear that cameras are ineffective in combating crime. The United Kingdom Home–Office Study — a meta-study published in 2005 to evaluate the effectiveness of the country’s closed-circuit television (more commonly referred to as CCTV) systems — found that the installation of surveillance cameras didn’t reduce the overall level of crime, didn’t make people feel safer and didn’t cause people to change their behavior. So in many ways, surveillance camera advocates are asking people to trade their liberty for a false sense of security.

Across the world, most notably in Great Britain, the last few years have given rise to a tremendous increase in government surveillance through the utilization of CCTV cameras. This can be observed in cities as close as Lansing, where there are now surveillance cameras in several residential neighborhoods.

Ann Arbor has, so far, not been a victim of this trend. While there are certainly plenty of private surveillance cameras throughout Ann Arbor, there hasn’t been an increase in government or police cameras installed. This absence gives us the opportunity to plan how we want to protect privacy in our community — a type of planning that has largely failed to occur across the country. It’s precisely this absence of planning that leads to the proliferation of government surveillance.

The Ann Arbor Freedom From Surveillance Ordinance proposes, amongst other things, to ban surveillance cameras in residential neighborhoods while allowing the installation of cameras in high-crime areas. Also included are provisions that require the police to maintain a web-accessible database of every camera they’ve installed throughout the city, while also requiring every installed camera to be renewed yearly. The renewal process is especially important because the tendency is for these cameras to be installed and never be removed. The renewal requirement ensures that cameras don’t outlive their usefulness. The proposed ordinance strikes a middle ground between the current Wild West approach and a more radical law, that would perhaps ban surveillance cameras altogether.

This issue is important to us because mass surveillance programs fundamentally alter the communities they monitor. Even though cameras can seem benign, the specter of constant observation is difficult to ignore. By supporting the Ann Arbor Freedom From Surveillance Ordinance, we can make explicit our community’s rejection of the all-encompassing surveillance society and establish a reasonable framework for surveillance use by law enforcement.

Joe Klaver is a member of the Students Against Surveillance.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.