Smile! You're on security camera

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2012 - 1:44 PM

Surveillance devices can now track your movements nearly everywhere. Whether you like it or not, they're here to stay.

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Security cameras capture street scenes, such as this bird's-eye view of 4th St. and Hennepin Av. S. in downtown Minneapolis.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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If you're worried that people are watching you, this might be a good time to jump straight to the crossword puzzle.

People are watching you.

Surveillance cameras have become pervasive, and although that might make you feel vulnerable or exposed, there often isn't a whole lot you can do about it.

"There might be some moral issues about surreptitious videotaping, but there are few legal limits," said Marshall Tanick of the Minneapolis law firm Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen. "Anything that happens in a public area is fair game. And, in general, anything that a person can see is fair game, even if you're in your own yard."

Multiple factors have led to the proliferation of the cameras. Our society has become more security-conscious since the Twin Towers attack. Scientific advancements have made the technology cheaper and easier, enabling homeowners to install do-it-yourself systems. And research has found that the surveillance has an impact on crime.

A three-year study released last September by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research group based in Washington, D.C., found that "camera systems offer local law enforcement agencies a cost-effective way to deter, document and reduce crime."

The report compared statistics from cities with strict limits on camera use with those where there were few limits and found that to be an effective crime-fighting tool, surveillance systems should have as few restrictions as possible.

"Residents' privacy rights must be considered and protected," the study concluded, "but guidelines on surveillance system use that are too restrictive can limit their effectiveness."

You have even fewer privacy rights at work, Tanick said.

"Unless there's an agreement with a union [setting limits], employers can do just about any kind of surveillance they want, including putting a camera in your desk drawer," he said. "The only limit is on places where a person has a normal expectation of privacy, such as a bathroom. And sometimes they can even get around that by putting up a warning sign."

Church cams?

Officials in New York and New Jersey have defended the video monitoring of Muslim neighborhoods as being within the letter of the law. But critics have decried the practice as a form of electronic bullying.

"They mounted cameras outside every mosque to track who was coming and going," said Ibrahim Hooper, a Minnesota native and former news producer at KSTP-TV who serves as the national spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy organization.

"That sort of thing sends a chill down your spine. We want America to be safe, just like everyone else, but when you cross the line -- when you start monitoring houses of worship in a country in which you are supposed to be free to worship as you please -- it's intimidating. We've seen a decrease in mosque attendance because of this."

Not everyone feels uneasy about the prospect that they might be on camera.

On a recent sunny lunch hour, Sarah Williams took a break from her desk to eat a sandwich on Nicollet Mall. She was asked if, between security cameras mounted atop buildings and those on light poles, she worried about being tracked wherever she went in Minneapolis.

"I never thought about it, but I suppose" it could be true, she said. "It doesn't bother me, though. There are a lot of other people for them to watch."

Her comments echoed one of the standard responses from surveillance supporters: If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.

But Trisha Stark, executive director of the Minnesota Psychological Association and a licensed psychologist, said that's an overly simplistic approach.

"From my experience, it's not necessarily the people who are doing something wrong who are worried about being watched," she said. "It's people who are worried about being judged negatively. They are worried about people making judgments about their lives."

To shield themselves, some of these people build privacy fences around their yards, for instance. But when the fear is carried to an extreme, it can become crippling, even when they're inside their homes.

"I've had clients who get down on their hands and knees and crawl past the windows because they're afraid of people watching them," she said.

Here to stay

Still, the cameras aren't going away. Even Tanick, who gained national attention by spearheading the case that resulted in overturning Minneapolis' PhotoCop system used to ticket drivers who ran red lights, said that ruling had a limited application.

"They bought cheap cameras; that was the problem," he said. The cameras weren't strong enough to show the drivers' faces, and state law puts the liability for breaking the law on the driver, not the owner of the car. "We didn't challenge the process [of ticketing via video], which has been mostly upheld in other courts," he added.

Ironically, for people who are nervous about the intrusion of an ever-growing number of cameras, the solution might be deployment of even more cameras, Stark said. At least, that's what has happened in Europe.

"Europe has many more cameras than we do," she said. "And what happened there was that people got used to it, where they didn't even think about it anymore. I expect that to happen here. Sooner or later, we're going to get used to it and forget that the cameras are there."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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