Last month an arsonist struck 12 times in five days in San Jose, California, including burning a warehouse that spanned more than one city block. Police arrested the culprit, aiding in part by volunteered private surveillance video. A new proposal before the City Council would allow police to tap into the private surveillance equipment of San Jose citizens who volunteer for the new program.
Via an online registration site, San Jose citizens can identify their location and type of cameras, allowing police to quickly identify surveillance assets in an area where a crime has been committed. While in the case of the arsonist, the video was volunteered, police often have to search on foot, door-to-door, in order to find viable surveillance cameras that may contain evidence needed for an investigation.
Although the San Jose Police have gone out of their way to highlight the voluntary nature of this program, it still raises privacy concerns. Critics believe that this is just a further expansion of a culture in which the government and police have access to surveillance of areas where people should have a reasonable expectation of privacy. According to attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation Hanni Fakoury, “Once you give the police unfettered access 24/7, you’re relying on them to exercise their restraint.”
According to retired judge LaDoris Cordell, now an independent police auditor, “You tend to behave when the cameras are on you.” Of course, it is this exact attitude—and exactly what is meant by “behave”—that has privacy advocates so concerned. Given unfettered access it is easy for the line between legal authority and “moral” authority to become hopelessly blurred.
Philadelphia and Chicago have implemented similar private partnerships with respect to surveillance, and San Jose is even considering asking security services to offer a discount to people who agree to participate in the program.