Camera Surveillance and GPS Tracking: Public Yet Private


Yesterday I did an RT interview about surveillance cameras in cities such as Chicago, which according to a February report (PDF) from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois has the most pervasive system in America. Chicago police have access to 10,000 or so cameras, and Mayor Richard Daley wants to add more, putting one "on every corner." The ACLU report notes that sophisticated camera networks that can zoom in on people, recognize their faces, and follow them from place to place raise privacy issues similar to those raised by GPS tracking. Even though all the tracking occurs in public places, the information it collects can be very revealing:

While earlier camera systems tracked only how some people spend some of their time in the public way, a camera on every corner – coupled with pan-tilt-zoom, facial recognition, and automatic tracking – results in government power to track how all people spend all of their time in the public way.

Each of us then will wonder whether the government is watching and recording us when we walk into a psychiatrist's office, a reproductive health care center, a political meeting, a theater performance, or a book store. While the dystopia described by George Orwell in "1984" has not yet been realized, Chicago's current 10,000 surveillance cameras are a significant step in this direction. And a camera "on every corner" would be an even greater step.

The ACLU suggests such government surveillance can have a chilling effect on expressive activity such as public protests, especially given Chicago's history of monitoring and harassing left-wing political groups. It recommends various safeguards to prevent abuse of information collected by the cameras. As a step in that direction, it is supporting a bill introduced last month that would "require police agencies that own or have access to video surveillance cameras to disclose to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority the number of their cameras, and their privacy regulations, if they have any." The information would be available on the authority's website.

I discussed the inhibiting effect of surveillance cameras in a 2002 column. Last August I noted that federal appeals courts are divided on the question of whether the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant for GPS tracking of vehicles. The ACLU report quotes the 9th Circuit's Alex Kozinski and the D.C. Circuit's Douglas Ginsburg, who have argued (writing in dissent and in the majority, respectively) that it does, despite the conventional view that people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, because such tracking reveals sensitive information. "A person who knows all of another's travels," Ginsburg noted in a 2010 decision (PDF), "can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups—and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts."