The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan recently put out a fascinating report (PDF) on the use of surveillance cameras in residential Lansing, Michigan which seems to be congruent with the ongoing rise of the use of surveillance cameras and associated technologies.
Remember, as a recent Senate panel discovered, invasive surveillance techniques such as those employed by fusion centers across the nation actually don’t stop terrorism but instead produce “a bunch of crap.”
While this type of surveillance technology is more commonly associated with large metropolises like New York City, the ACLU of Michigan’s report shows that the use has expanded into residential areas as well.
Some of the placements are nothing short of disturbing with one camera boasting a 360-degree field of view of an area up to 500 feet with zoom capability placed immediately outside of a home.
The cameras placed by the Lansing Police Department run around the clock and leverage high-definition color, night vision and focus features that allow the camera to “resolve minute detail in even the most severe environmental conditions,” according to the report.
“This means that the Lansing cameras give police the ability to read words on a piece of paper in someone’s hand within 50 feet, clearly discern a license plate that is 300 feet away, or recognize a face at 400 feet,” the ACLU of Michigan writes.
While it might be somewhat comforting to note that the cameras aren’t actually monitored in real time 24 hours a day, everything captured by the cameras is digitally recorded and stored on hard drives for at least two weeks allowing for later retrieval and viewing.
While there are indeed limits placed on the surveillance of private areas, the ACLU remarks that they are far from adequate.
One of the so-called “privacy zones” defined by the Lansing Police Department is the windows of homes along with other “non-public areas” which the cameras supposedly do not record.
Yet what one might think would be labeled a “non-public area” apparently was not considered as such by the Lansing police.
While the windows of private homes were blocked from surveillance, according to the ACLU many front stoops and fenced backyards were not blocked until the ACLU made a recommendation to do so.
Clearly a fenced backyard would not be considered a public area, but apparently that didn’t stop the police from invading those spaces with their surveillance technology.
“The police feel that they’ve included sufficient safeguards by including that feature,” said Rena Elmir of the ACLU of Michigan to the ACLU’s Jay Stanley. “Still, if you have a mailbox that’s at the end of your property line, the idea that a police officer could see whom you’re getting mail from using the zoom ability of the camera is worrisome.”
“And just as easily as you can blur those areas, such as windows, you can disable that feature,” Elmir pointed out. “The idea that this could be misused by police—even if it’s just one person, one bad apple—is pretty scary.”
We must also consider the fact that surveillance cameras can be hacked, further increasing the likelihood of abuse.
According to an independent researcher who worked with the ACLU of Michigan on their report, the use of surveillance cameras disproportionately targets African Americans.
The report concludes that black residents are twice as likely to be under camera surveillance than white residents, which is hardly a minor issue.
“In a society where many African Americans already feel profiled, installing surveillance cameras in their communities to constantly monitor their behavior only serves to heighten their sense of powerlessness and to foster mistrust of government officials,” the report notes.
Many African American residents have negatively responded to the presence of the cameras because they “feel they are being viewed with suspicion as potential criminals,” according to the report.
“Their sentiments have been reflected in studies verifying that racial minorities are frequently targeted by camera operators in other communities ‘with a relish that impl[ies] a deep prejudice,’” the ACLU of Michigan’s report concludes.
This is a powerful example of how the use of surveillance cameras is expanding to even the most unlikely places like residential neighborhoods. This should be seen as a sign of what is to come unless the American people begin to express their distaste with these invasive practices.
Keep in mind, there is absolutely nothing stopping your local police department from installing cameras outside your house as well.
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