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More surveillance cameras don't make you safer, ACLU says

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In a post last month, we told you about a new website called CommunityCam, which planned to use crowd-sourcing techniques to document and map all the security cameras in public areas throughout Denver and other nearby areas. The site's founder mainly portrayed such surveillance devices as good things -- no surprise, given that his main company sells and markets them. But the ACLU of Boulder's Judd Golden doesn't equate more cameras with more safety and is concerned about other possible infringements on personal privacy as they proliferate.

Golden isn't new to this issue. Back in August, he talked with us about license-plate readers, which he said had the technical capability of allowing authorities to track every driver in Boulder and beyond. So it's no surprise he looked at the CommunityCam concept with a critical eye.

Here's a CommunityCam screen capture of Colorado from our original post.

Next, take a closer look at Denver metro, with designations for the number of cameras in assorted suburbs, plus Boulder and the city itself: Finally, here's a zoom-in of downtown Denver, with icons marking the locations for dozens of cameras, many just steps away from each other: In the view of CommunityCam's Josh Daniels, maps like these provide locals with "primarily social benefits -- things like being able to plan safer, monitored routes for jogging, biking and walking. Obviously, Denver has a very active outdoor population of people, and this allows communities like neighborhood watch groups to take an active role in preventing and solving crimes and identifies where video evidence may be found after criminal acts have been committed."

That's not how Golden sees it.

Continue for more of our interview with the ACLU of Boulder's Judd Golden about surveillance cameras. "These people are in the security camera business," he points out. "So it makes sense that they'd want to give people a warm and fuzzy feeling about security cameras. But the idea that if you're going to take a walk or a bike ride and you'll be safer if you pick a place where you're under surveillance is absolutely illusory and false.

"No cameras are being monitored in real time," he continues. As such, the best a crime victim can hope for, in his view, is that "someday, somebody might be able to get a grainy shot of the guy who bopped you over the head."

He also questions the idea that criminals will shy away from certain areas if they know cameras are present. "People who live a life of crime make a whole lot of bad choices," he notes. "But they understand that when a camera is pointed at them, they move out of range of cameras.

"We were able to limit surveillance in Boulder County schools by showing that if a kid's going to beat up another kid for his lunch money, he'll look at the camera, then drag him around the corner and beat him up there. And it works the same way on the streets."

Golden suspects that the goal of security camera manufacturers is "to have everyone under constant surveillance all the time. But the ACLU has an ongoing concern about the expansion of the idea that a surveillance society is a good thing because occasionally you may be able to solve some crimes.

"Cities are getting grants to use audio, light and even seismic activity for traffic enforcement. They're saying, 'We can put cameras all over and detect speeding, illegal left turns. It's easy law enforcement.' But it can also allow the government to track you using facial recognition. And this is not illusory. The technology is there to be able to do that.

"These people are trying to say, 'The more surveillance you have, the safer you'll be,'" Golden says. "But the ACLU respectfully disagrees."

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Tech archive: "How many cameras are watching you? CommunityCam Denver wants to find out."

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