Wireless Cameras in Modesto Raise Privacy Concerns

Published August 1, 2009

Modesto, California is deploying a wireless video surveillance network to monitor five square blocks in its downtown area. The effort, which the city justifies as a crime-fighting measure, has raised privacy concerns.

“The privacy issues are incredibly important ones with profound Fourth Amendment implications,” said Sasha Meinrath, research director of the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank. “Trading security for surveillance is a recipe for serious civil rights violations.”

However, Meinrath adds, surveillance cameras have proven successful in several other cities, and people generally should expect less privacy in public places. Meinrath argues wireless surveillance cameras have value so long as sufficient privacy protections are in place.

“I’m glad to see public safety officials in Modesto tapping into the potential of wireless technology,” Meinrath said. “In my discussions with [chief information officers] in places like Boston, New York City, San Francisco, Houston, and elsewhere, I’ve learned about a number of pioneering wireless services that have been put in place over the years to enhance public safety.”

‘Surveillance Without Safety’

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, argues cameras have a spotty record in stopping crime.

“Video surveillance tends to push crime rates back for a little while, but after the criminals figure out that the cameras are not being watched, the rates go back up,” Harper said. “Cameras are no substitute for real police work.

“Overreliance on cameras may save money and provide a brief boost in safety for a particular area, but over time their impact lessens as behaviors shift or move outside of camera range,” Harper added. “Community policing is all about face time and trust. Cameras provide neither and, over time, can create conditions for surveillance without safety.”

Data Protection Concerns

Citizens of Modesto are right to wonder what happens to recordings of people who have committed no crimes, Harper said.

“Another privacy concern is what about the destruction of the data? Will they keep [the recordings on people moving about downtown] forever?” Harper asked. “The reason why this matters is in the not-too-distant future, high-quality video cameras will be matched with facial recognition systems.

“In many ways, Modesto’s decision is another step to the ‘Big Brother Infrastructure,'” Harper added. “I do not think the city’s decision-makers are aware of the problem.”

Could Be Helpful Tool

Meinrath notes Modesto is responsibly using the 4.9 GHz band over unlicensed spectrum to transmit the pictures caught by the cameras.

“In terms of Modesto deciding to use 4.9 GHz over unlicensed spectrum, since the 4.9 GHz band is allocated specifically for public safety, it makes sense as far as that goes,” Meinrath said. But he would prefer development of new integrated networks because the 4.9 GHz spectrum is not the most cost-effective.

“It makes even more sense to develop integrated networks that span both unlicensed and licensed frequencies,” Meinrath said. “In essence, this allows public safety to make use of additional capacity and supports broadband access for the general public, and still allows public safety to make use of their own band when necessary.

“Sadly, the development of single-use frequencies is actually very much a throwback to antiquated thinking, twentieth century modalities for achieving capacity and reliability,” Meinrath added. “Given today’s technologies, a far more robust network could be built using a shared network and prioritizing emergency communications at the packet level.

“In essence, [Modesto is] paying a premium for specialized equipment, paying again to build unnecessary redundancy, and paying a third time because their network is less reliable and has less capacity than it would otherwise have if it was interoperable and standardized,” Meinrath said.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.