Increased surveillance weighs safety and privacy

Increased surveillance weighs safety and privacy

March 11th, 2012 by Lou Grieco, Doug Page and Dave Larsen/Cox Newspapers in Business Around the Region

DAYTON, Ohio - Whether you are walking down a city street or working online, you are under almost constant surveillance.

High-tech security cameras maintain around-the-clock vigils on area houses, businesses and streets, helping police capture criminals but also track law-abiding citizens.

New "smart" electric meters can monitor homeowners' activity by their energy usage and provide data that is sometimes used in criminal investigations.

Internet companies track consumers' online habits through their Web browsers, while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security monitors social networks such as Facebook and Twitter for signs of attacks or other problems.

State-of-the-art surveillance technology can save dollars and lives, according to proponents. Advanced monitoring systems and high-tech data mining help to lower staffing costs while expanding the capabilities of humans to prevent or solve crimes, reduce fraud and theft, and even thwart potential terrorist attacks.

However, widespread surveillance raises personal privacy concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union has strongly criticized what it calls the Surveillance Society, which Mike Brickner, ACLU of Ohio Director of Communications & Public Policy, called "inherently un-American."

Surveillance industry

Mass surveillance has become one of the U.S. government's principle strategies for protecting national security in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Advances in digital technology over the last decade have made it faster and systematic to store and retrieve video surveillance data compared to the lengthy process of watching videotapes. As a result, private sector video surveillance has moved beyond traditional security into new areas such as transportation, manufacturing and retail.

Total revenues for the global video surveillance market are expected to grow from $10.5 billion last year to $25.4 billion by 2016, according to an analysis by MarketsandMarkets, a Dallas-based market research company.

Persistent Surveillance Systems, based in Xenia, Ohio, provides wide-area surveillance products for law enforcement agencies in cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, as well as for major public events and U.S. border security.

PSS in 2010 received a $900,000 grant from the Ohio Third Frontier to develop wide-area airborne surveillance technology for continuous second-by-second video monitoring of city-size areas for law enforcement and security purposes. The company developed the Hawkeye II, an aerial surveillance system that is comparable to 700 simultaneous video cameras and enables authorities to watch a five-mile-by-five-mile area of a major city.

The company's Hawkeye systems and image analysis have assisted law enforcement organizations in 34 murder investigations, allowing them to track suspects and their accomplices to their homes or places of origin, said Ross McNutt, company president.


Englewood, Ohio, has deployed 20 cameras throughout the city. City Manager Eric Smith said the project started in 2006 with an Ohio Department of Transportation grant to improve the city's traffic flow. Main Street from Interstate 70 north to National Road has five traffic lights that cause havoc with rush-hour traffic flow.

After much discussion, it was decided to connect the signals through fiber-optic cables and tilt-and-zoom cameras to keep an eye on traffic. At the state's suggestion, camera feeds were transmitted to the city's dispatch center so dispatchers would have a better idea of what equipment to dispatch to accidents.

"Nobody anticipated it would evolve into law enforcement," Smith said.

That evolution began within a year of the first traffic cameras' installation. Dispatchers heard a report of the theft of a mailman's uniform just outside the city. The dispatchers used one of the traffic cameras to zoom in on the nearby Meijer parking lot and spotted a suspicious young man wearing part of the uniform. Dispatchers were able to direct officers to the suspect, who was arrested.

Since then, the city has used $1.8 million in grants to expand the fiber-optic network and place cameras throughout the city.

"We are looking only at open public spaces," Police Chief Mark Brownfield said. Besides the city's major intersections, cameras are mounted outside the city's elementary schools, the YMCA/Sinclair Community College complex, and adjacent to large Kroger, Walmart and Meijer stores.

Both Smith and Brownfield emphasized the cameras are not used for speed enforcement or red-light enforcement, nor are they used to look at private property.

"The cameras only see what a police officer would see if the officer were standing there," Smith said. "The citizens are getting additional police service without paying for more officers."

'Smart' grid

The advanced "smart grid" technology being applied to Ohio's existing electric system to make it more reliable and efficient also raises data-privacy and data-security issues.

The U.S. Department of Energy warned in a 2010 report that digital "smart meters" that provide highly detailed energy-use data could reveal personal details about the lives of consumers based on their energy consumption. Such information could include consumers' daily schedules, including times when they are at home, away or asleep; whether their homes are equipped with alarm systems; whether they own expensive electronic equipment such as plasma TVs; and whether they use certain types of medical equipment.

"Because of its detailed nature, such information should be accorded privacy protections," the report concluded.

Online surveillance

Digital privacy is becoming a federal policy issue in the wake of recent revelations that Internet services such as Google were tracking consumers' online habits.

President Obama has outlined a framework to help consumers control the use of their online personal data.

In response, Internet companies including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL have agreed to add "Do Not Track" buttons to their browser windows so users can prevent advertisers from tracking their surfing habits.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security monitors public online forums, blogs, message boards and websites, including Facebook and Twitter "to collect information used in providing situational awareness," according to government documents.

The agency's Media Monitoring Initiative was launched in 2010 and has since been expanded to "collect additional information, including limited instances of personally identifiable information," according to a "privacy compliance review" issued in November.

Privacy issues

The ACLU's Brickner said there is a long-held presumption in our society that unless someone is doing something wrong, what they do is their concern.

"Where I go and what I do and where I spend my time is really not the government's business," Brickner said. If there is legitimate suspicion of wrongdoing, then law enforcement can take action, such as obtaining search warrants. But because the Fourth Amendment guards against unreasonable search and seizures, there is a burden of proof that must be met, Brickner said.