Prying Eyes

If you were raised religious, then you're familiar with the concept of constant surveillance — every moment sized up on Judgment Day, when you get to review your life with the OG. But Heaven doesn't have a Constitution, so God doesn't care that He may be violating your rights. In San Francisco, however, there's a contentious debate about those rights as they pertain to high-tech surveillance cameras.

At the moment, S.F. has 33 cameras snooping 24/7 in high-crime neighborhoods, with funds budgeted to install 22 more this year at a cost of $275,000. But that installation has been put on hold after the ACLU charged in a Nov. 20 letter to the Police Commission that the city failed to give enough notice to the public about camera-related hearings. The commission has rescheduled the public meeting for Jan. 17.

"Above all the cameras are a political tool, an attempt to make it look like we've got a solution," says Supervisor Jake McGoldrick. "It's the worst kind of political marketing. And it's being done at the expense of a free society, the right to assemble freely. It's Orwellian."

Such cameras aren't always used for honorable purposes. In the U.K., which has a network of more than 2 million of them, the BBC has reported abuses ranging from racial profiling to plain mischief. A story in the New York Times Magazinetold of video operators in the Midlands taking close-ups of women with large breasts and taping them on the walls.

But according to Allen Nance, acting director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, "It's just not fair to compare San Francisco to other cities." He explains: "San Francisco is far ahead of other cities when it comes to putting in safeguards relating to privacy." The cameras aren't monitored live, he says, and the information gathered is stored for a week before being dumped, with strict regulations about who can see what and when.

Many also wonder whether the cameras work. A study done by the British Home Office concluded that the U.K.'s surveillance camera program had "led to a negligible reduction in crime."

When asked if a system is in place to determine the cameras' efficacy, Nance replied, "No." But he's sure there will be: "We are committed to working with the academic community to come up with an empirical study, and we've already consulted with the Center for Information Technology and Society and the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic to come up with a methodology." We feel safer already.

 
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