The most populous US cities are under heavy surveillance. Atlanta alone has 50 CCTV cameras per 1,000 inhabitants. But do these security measures actually provide safety to those who are being watched?
In Chicago alone, there are 32k closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, a recent study by Comparitech revealed. Atlanta has slightly fewer cameras - almost 25 thousand - but is the most heavily surveilled city in the US with 50 CCTV cameras for every 1,000 inhabitants.
The research also suggests that there is hardly any correlation between higher camera figures and lower crime indexes.
Experts argue that CCTV cameras are most helpful for investigations after the crime has been committed, but they should be called surveillance rather than safety cameras.
“Unrestricted CCTV surveillance, combined with face recognition technology, can have a chilling effect on freedom of movement,” Paul Bischoff, a consumer privacy expert at Comparitech, told CyberNews.
The most surveilled city in the US
Researchers were able to find data for 39 of the 50 most populated cities. Across these, they found that nearly 270,000 cameras monitor a population of 44.2 million people (6 cameras per 1,000 citizens).
While Chicago has the highest number of cameras (32,000), Atlanta is the most surveilled city with a ratio of 48.93 cameras per 1,000 people.
Researchers looked at the number of fixed CCTV cameras, the number of cameras accessed through real-time crime centers, the number of private cameras within the police force’s network, cameras on public transport facilities, traffic cameras, and streetlight cameras.
They also analyzed whether the police department in question was utilizing Ring doorbell technology, which gives them access to private cameras installed outside the public’s homes. However, these figures were unclear and therefore not included in totals.
Based on the research, these are the 10 most surveilled cities in the US.
- Atlanta, Georgia – 24,800 cameras for 506,811 people = 48.93 cameras per 1,000 people. Here, researchers note that some of the 12,800 cameras available to the Atlanta Police Department through its surveillance camera network include some of the cameras located at the airport. But it also includes public CCTV, as well as school district cameras, traffic cameras, and private cameras shared with the police department. However, even if they only counted the 12,000 cameras in the public transport network (removing the 12,800 CCTVs within the police’s surveillance network), Atlanta would still be the worst city for surveillance with 23.68 cameras per 1,000 people.
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – 28,064 cameras for 1,584,064 people = 17.72 cameras per 1,000 people
- Denver, Colorado – 12,273 cameras for 727,211 people = 16.88 cameras per 1,000 people
- Washington, District of Columbia – 11,441 cameras for 705,749 people = 16.21 cameras per 1,000 people
- San Francisco, California – 14,266 cameras for 881,549 people = 16.18 cameras per 1,000 people
- Las Vegas, Nevada – 10,208 cameras for 651,319 people = 15.67 cameras per 1,000 people
- Detroit, Michigan – 8,836 cameras for 670,031 people = 13.19 cameras per 1,000 people
- Chicago, Illinois – 32,000 cameras for 2,693,976 people = 11.88 cameras per 1,000 people
- Portland, Oregon – 6,411 cameras for 654,741 people = 9.79 cameras per 1,000 people
- Fresno, California – 4,706 cameras for 531,576 people = 8.85 cameras per 1,000 people
According to the Comparitech study on the world’s most surveilled cities, Atlanta would be the seventh most surveilled city in the world, only beaten by five cities in China and London.
Researchers are worried
CCTV cameras are used for a wide range of reasons, from monitoring traffic to preventing crimes. But with increasingly high resolutions, more remote access to live video streams, and the utilization of technologies like facial recognition and Ring doorbell cameras, researchers pose a question just how much is too much when it comes to police surveillance?
“Local law enforcement agencies have more access to CCTV cameras than ever before, and that trend doesn't look likely to change without regulatory intervention. Not only are local governments installing more cameras, but many are also adding privately-owned Ring doorbell cameras to their arsenal,” Bischoff told CyberNews.
Last year, it was widely reported that police used cameras and facial recognition technology to arrest Black Lives Matter protesters. No wonder human rights activists across the globe are actively urging governments to ban facial recognition technology.
“Unrestricted CCTV surveillance, combined with face recognition technology, can have a chilling effect on freedom of movement - people act differently when they know they're being watched - and could allow for those in power to restrict freedoms of movement and assembly,” Bischoff said.
Usually, CCTV cameras are installed to reduce crime rates. Yet, after comparing the number of public CCTV cameras with the crime indices reported by Numbeo, researchers hardly found any correlation between higher camera figures and lower crime indices.
“Broadly speaking, then, crime rates aren’t reduced by having more cameras in place,” they said.
From Ring doorbell to smart streetlights
28 of the 39 police departments that researchers looked into had access to Ring doorbell camera footage. And that’s an area for concern as it can significantly increase a police department’s surveillance reach.
The efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 put people’s privacy at risk. For example, Miami Dade County is trialling the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to track whether people are adhering to social-distancing regulations. Experts are calling COVID-19 tracing apps ‘safety theatre’ and ‘abysmal failure’.
Some cities, instead of replacing their streetlights with energy-efficient LED lights, are integrating CCTV technology into the lampposts. These initiatives are met with privacy concerns and resistance. For example, the mayor of San Diego ordered 3,000 streetlight cameras be turned off until legislative measures surrounding the use of these types of technologies are in place. In San Francisco, a plan for 40,000 streetlight cameras was pulled.
Safety in exchange for privacy
While CCTV cameras may provide some protection, certain minorities might be further marginalized by surveillance cameras.
“We see something like surveillance technologies that are used in the intent of public safety but, truthfully, they erode privacy for certain communities and individuals and have the worst impact on their physical safety,” said Melanie Ensign, founder & CEO at Discernible.
According to her, when we talk about consumer privacy, consumer safety, we are not talking about a monolithic group of people.
“A lot of companies struggle with trying to balance how to do the most for the most people without leaving behind those who are most vulnerable,” she said.
In her previous position at Uber, she spent a lot of time researching the efficacy of security cameras. And they, she argued, are most helpful for investigations after the crime has already been committed. But they are not safety cameras, she argues. The more accurate term would be surveillance cameras. It would only be fair if various institutions that deploy them would be honest with consumers about ‘what the actual benefits are from a safety perspective in exchange for those privacy concessions’.
The danger of facial recognition cameras
In the United States, around one-quarter of law enforcement agencies can use facial recognition. According to the Atlas of Surveillance, a project by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Florida is the state with most facial recognition cameras in place.
Detroit police admitted that FRT misidentifies suspects about 96% of the time.
Last September, Portland passed unprecedented restrictions on facial recognition technology. The landmark move prohibits public and private use from using surveillance tech.
Another problem is that many smart devices, such as smart locks, bells, or washing machines, can be turned into surveillance tools and make spying upon us much easier for private corporations and governmental institutions.
“If we are surrounding ourselves with devices that are watching and listening to us, we are essentially laying the ground for a future police state,” Evan Greer, Deputy Director at Fight for the Future, once told CyberNews.
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