Austin Installs Outdoor Surveillance Cameras

Published May 31, 2016

Can security cameras and a town that likes being known as “weird” mix? That’s what Austin, Texas—home to the University of Texas, the annual South by Southwest Music Festival, and Hippie Hollow, the only legally recognized clothing-optional public park in the State of Texas—is about to find out.

The Austin Police Department is getting ready to install two new security cameras downtown, increasing the number of cameras in the area to 29. APD officials have been monitoring the cameras since they were first put up in September, and all gathered film is stored.

The APD initiative is part of a program called HALO, or, High Activity Location Observation. According to a police spokesman, it is based on the surveillance camera system used in Denver, Colorado, where all the cameras are in the open and visible to citizens.

Trawling for Criminals
Charles Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, says the APD received a federal grant to partially fund the original HALO system and a small number of cameras. His organization contributed money to add additional cameras in the downtown entertainment district.

“The Downtown Austin Alliance funded this program because it allows APD to do their jobs more effectively and leverages their resources, helping to keep downtown a safe place,” he said.

“In the short time these cameras have been up, we are already seeing positive results. They are allowing for officers to catch crimes in progress that they might not otherwise see, for crimes to be more efficiently prosecuted, and guide deployment of APD resources for crowd control at large events like South by Southwest and the annual Republic of Texas Motorcycle Rally,” he said.

Seton Motley, president of Less, says the APD is using security cameras not primarily to prevent crime but instead to trawl for criminals in order to generate revenue.

“Technology is getting exponentially cheaper every five days, so cost is not a barrier to someone if they want to use them,” said Motley. “I object to the fact that cities and police departments across the nation are unilaterally deploying these cameras without any input from the citizens or the city councils,” he said.

Ineffective Deterrent
Ryan Calo, director of Privacy and Robotics at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, says it is not clear to him why any city would install so many security cameras over a large area since there is no data available proving they successfully fight crime.

Calo says security cameras are ineffective in deterring crime or catching criminals, and he cites several studies, including one conducted in San Francisco that found video surveillance cameras do not make people safer; and another in London, which found that for every 1,000 cameras installed, only one crime has been solved. So far, studies show the presence of cameras over a broad territory does not deter crime, but merely displaces it to areas without cameras, he said.

Calo continued: “I’d recommend that Austin collect data on this and see if it’s a good use of taxpayer money. Whatever deterrence value cameras have in reducing crime, we must always be aware of the ultimate cost,” he said. “Are we giving up too much by having a camera on every street corner? For instance, is it worth the loss of spontaneity, or having to worry about being profiled because we went to the park to read a book?” he asked.

“Once surveillance cameras are deployed, it’s very easy for them to be abused. For instance, do we want to say we’re deploying them to deter crime and terrorism, only to find operators zooming in on every pretty girl or the police going after people suspected of committing drug crimes?” he asked.

Abuses Could Increase Revenues
Gennady Stolyarov II, editor-in-chief of The Rational Argumentator blog, said installing security cameras at intersections may seem like an enticing way to catch criminals, but the adverse consequences outweigh the benefits.

Cameras not only record thefts and assaults, they record every movement of every person at the intersection, greatly increasing the likelihood minor, victimless behaviors will be noticed and targeted, Stolyarov explained. “Technical infractions of previously unenforced and unenforceable laws will suddenly become detectable, and it will be tempting for police to utilize their punishment through relatively small but frequently imposed fines as a revenue source,” Stolyarov said.

“Criminal law is so complex these days that most people will find themselves technically violating some prohibition or mandate they never heard of. Security cameras will make it far easier to identify such violations and punish the unknowing violators—peaceful citizens who intend no harm,” he said.

Even with film footage, the possibility for misunderstanding exists, said Stolyarov.

“Can there be a full guarantee that police would not interpret footage of a handshake or a gift transfer as a drug deal? Can one be confident that a person standing at the intersection to enjoy the view would not be considered a loiterer, or worse, a terrorist who is scanning the area for targets? Can one be confident that a peaceful street vendor or performer would not be targeted as violating some obscure ordinance requiring such people to obtain permits, solely to increase the revenue of the municipality?” he asked.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.