Video Surveillance Systems

Video Surveillance Systems

AKA: "Surveillance Cameras"

The use of camera surveillance systems to constantly monitor public places hinders our ability to remain anonymous in public. While cameras have always been a privacy hazard, new tracking technologies increase the risks they pose to civil liberties.

What is it used for?: 

Fear of terrorism prompted many cities to consider installing massive video surveillance systems. Less than a year after 9/11, New York City announced plans to build a surveillance center where police would monitor a growing network of cameras around the clock. Similarly, city officials in Boston, Denver, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C., expanded their own massive camera systems. While terrorism fears have begun to subside, police in many cities now hope they can use cameras to solve and deter more ordinary crimes.

The capabilities of today’s video surveillance networks outclass the stationary cameras and grainy CCTV screens most people are familiar with. The city of Chicago has developed one of the most expansive and intrusive camera systems in the United States. It combines a network of at least 10,000 cameras with advanced analysis tools to watch every street corner in the city. 


As the ACLU of Illinois wrote in its report on Chicago’s system, a camera on every corner “invades the freedom to be anonymous in public places, a key aspect of the fundamental American right to be left alone.” The system’s computer can pick a person and follow him, jumping from camera to camera as he moves through the city. This allows for monitoring just as intrusive as placing a secret GPS tracker on the person. In addition, the use of analytics with camera systems intensifies privacy concerns. Human behavior is complex, subtle, and unpredictable. Any analytics system that is sensitive enough to “notice” a real crime will probably also turn up a huge number of false positives. That means that some people could be scrutinized or hassled for innocent behavior that an algorithm registers as unusual. Over time, people might change their behavior to avoid standing out even more than they do under traditional surveillance systems.

How it Works: 

Many of us have become inured to the glare of surveillance cameras. We encounter them in department stores, sports stadiums, and many public buildings. But modern, government owned camera systems work in a more intrusive way than you might think. As technology continues to evolve, they’ll become cheaper and easier to use.

  • Many major cities have the ability to field thousands of cameras, all linked to a surveillance nerve center. Video from these cameras link back a central repository in one of two ways. Many communities still use a classic closed-circuit television system that conducts feeds to screening stations along video cables. Increasingly, major cities opt for wireless transmission. Not only can a wireless network cover a greater area, but officers can often access the feeds from mobile computers in their patrol cars.
  • Digital video data vastly increases surveillance capabilities.  Advances in data storage have made it possible for police to cheaply collect and hoard hundreds of thousands of hours of video each day. The technical ability to maintain a record of all movements in a city indefinitely is fast approaching. Digital video, moreover, can easily be shared with other agencies, stabilized and focused, and dissected by powerful forensic analysis programs.
  • Modern camera systems allow operators to pan, tilt, and zoom in on the people they’re watching. This allows operators to better focus their gaze on potential wrongdoers. But research on camera operators in the U.K. found that they frequently used this ability to ogle strangers. They also tended to target racial minorities for special scrutiny.
  • Many camera systems now use video analytics to watch for “suspicious” behavior. As ACLU privacy expert Jay Stanley notes, “A video camera on its own is dumb, like your retina being hit by photons. Video analytics is an attempt to create a brain behind the eye to interpret those signals.” These systems watch for hand gestures, movement patterns, etc., that raise the computer’s red flags.
How prevalent is it?: 

Data on the full extent of camera surveillance in America is scanty. However, public safety officials have installed extensive public camera systems in hundreds of cities, from metropolises like New York and Chicago to small suburban towns like Renton, WA. Presently, only a few major cities have proposed the sort of advanced camera system that Chicago has introduced. As the technology grows cheaper, however, these systems may tempt public safety officials in more and more communities.

Examples of Use

  • Seattle, WA
    Seattle Surveillance Cameras Cause Concern

    In June 2015, visitors to Seattle’s Central District spotted new video cameras installed at several busy intersections in the neighborhood.  After weeks of silence, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) confirmed that they installed the surveillance system. According to the Bureau, they are being used for “an ongoing multi-agency criminal investigation.”  The cameras have raised privacy concerns. As one resident put it, "I feel like they're watching us and we're being judged." And privacy advocates are upset that the public was not informed about the cameras prior to installation, highlighting the need greater transparency in government use of surveillance technologies.


  • Seattle, WA
    Seattle, WA
    Community Resistance Halts Seattle Public Camera Network

    “What bothers the community is that this was never brought to our attention, never discussed,” said one resident of Seattle’s Alki neighborhood at a tense city council hearing. “These cameras can potentially look right into our houses, right into my living room.”

    The network of 30 advanced surveillance cameras to which the Alki Beach resident referred in 2013 was the Seattle Police Department’s newest acquisition – and newest source of controversy. The camera system had been funded with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, but the department had neither established a formal policy governing the cameras’ use, nor consulted the public before going ahead with the project. Even members of the city council had been caught by surprise. The city had gotten $5 million in federal money for the project, purchasing first-rate cameras that feed video wirelessly to a central surveillance hub. The SPD had justified the grant to DHS as measure necessary to protect the port, and proposed that the cameras would be directed at the beach and waterfront. However, at least some of the cameras could pan and tilt up 360 degrees – some residents had found them turned away from the water and pointed at beachfront neighborhoods. The public uproar caused the SPD to delay the launch of the system  while it worked on drafting a privacy policy that will be reviewed by the  city council, under the eyes of a wary citizenry.


When government agencies consider acquiring and using surveillance systems, communities and their elected officials must both weigh the benefits against the costs to civil liberties and carefully craft policies and procedures that help to limit the negative effects that surveillance will have on fundamental rights.  For a useful list of considerations, please visit the recommendations page.