The Boston Bombing: Should Cameras Now Be Everywhere?

More video surveillance will be coming to cities across America. But how do we balance safety with privacy?

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This frame grab from a video released by the FBI on April 18, 2013, shows Tamerlan, front, in black cap, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, in white cap, back right, walking through the crowd before the explosions at the Boston Marathon in Boston, Mass., on April 15, 2013.

After the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the capture of his brother Dzhokhar, some lawmakers began calling for more public cameras of the sort that were so instrumental in their swift apprehension. Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.,) a member of the House Homeland Security and Intelligence committees, told MSNBC that video cameras in public locations are “a great law enforcement method” that “keeps us ahead of the terrorists who are constantly trying to kill us.”

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It’s a safe bet that there will be more video cameras coming to cities across the United States. London, which was shaken by a subway bombing on July 7, 2007, now has upwards of one million surveillance cameras. So this is a good time to ask if we should put some limits on the government’s all-seeing eye. The answer should be yes. We should craft our laws to allow images of criminal suspects to be captured in public – but also to make sure that the government does not unduly infringe on the privacy rights of innocent citizens.

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The first thing to understand about surveillance video in public places is that there is already a lot of it going on – though it is impossible to know how much. Back in 2006, the New York Civil Liberties Union sent inspectors out to look for street-level surveillance cameras and found nearly 4,500 in Manhattan alone. There are, no doubt, many thousands more today in Manhattan, and countless more in cities and towns and shopping malls across the country.

In addition to these government-installed cameras, there are street-facing security cams installed by office complexes, apartment buildings, and retail stores. In the Boston Marathon investigation, law enforcement relied in large part on surveillance video from a Lord & Taylor department store that appeared to show someone dropping off a heavy bag at the bombing site. (Photos taken the old-fashioned way were also important.)

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Adding to this far-reaching network of public cameras, the government is now ramping up the use of domestic drones – pilotless aircraft equipped with powerful surveillance cameras that can photograph both public places and private property. Congress has been leading the charge, ordering the Federal Aviation Administration to open airspace that was once off-limits to drones.

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As video surveillance inevitably ramps up, there are several ways that law enforcement interests should be against by privacy concerns. We need to develop clearer principles about when and where surveillance cameras should be used, which are now woefully lacking. It makes sense to have cameras in places where terrorism and crime are of particular concern— such as in Times Square or near major bridges and tunnels. It would be more troubling to learn, however, that the government has focused cameras on the front doors of our homes just to keep track of our comings and goings.

We also need laws establishing strong “data minimization” requirements. When the government takes video of people in public places, the images should only be kept as long as they may reasonably be needed to investigate a crime. After a few days, if there has not been a report of a crime, they should be destroyed. The government — and private companies — should not use surveillance cameras to create massive databases of where we all have been, or searchable archives of political protesters.

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Finally, we need to proceed with particular caution with domestic drones. If we are going to have them —and it seems that we are —we must establish strong standards for transparency about where they go and what they do, and we need to start developing robust privacy protections, including particular checks on their use to photograph private property.

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When photos quickly turned up of the Boston Marathon bombers, and those images helped in tracking them down, it was hard not to cheer for the role that video technology can play in fighting terrorism and other crimes. There was good reason for cheering but now that we are done, we should begin to put in place well-considered rules that strike the right balance between law enforcement and privacy.