Privacy vs. security

How Dayton, Ohio, Los Angeles and London weigh the balance between cost-effective surveillance and privacy concerns

On this week’s “TechKnow,” contributor and former CIA officer and analyst Lindsay Moran visits Persistent Surveillance Systems, an Ohio-based company that uses high-resolution cameras mounted on planes for neighborhood surveillance.

The PSS system is relatively cost-effective and gives police the ability to observe activity before, during and after a crime — but the concept of aerial surveillance has many citizens up in arms with privacy concerns.

Here’s a look at three cities currently weighing the balance between privacy and security.



PSS hoped to launch its aerial surveillance technology in Dayton, a city that has lost more than 10 percent of its police force in the past several years due to budget cuts.

“We’re not going to get those officers back,” said Police Chief Richard Biehl. “We have had to use technology as force multipliers.”

During a demonstration flight in 2012, PSS technology was able to track a robbery suspect from the scene of the crime — and thwart another attempted robbery in progress.

PSS testing was successful in Dayton, but privacy concerns halted further surveillance.

Despite successful examples of PSS surveillance, a proposed plan for the company to contract with the city of Dayton (120 hours of surveillance at $1,000 an hour — cheaper than comparable services from a police helicopter) was scrapped after a citizens’ group raised opposition over privacy concerns.

“Whether we are talking about piloted airborne surveillance programs or drones, the technology is here and it will only get smaller, cheaper and more sophisticated,” said Melissa Bilancini, policy coordinator for the ACLU of Ohio. “Given this reality, it is important for every city to have policies that address the potential impact this evolving technology will have on privacy.”


For another “TechKnow” segment on high-tech police tools, Moran explored the use of license plate readers — high-speed cameras mounted on police cars or stationary objects like road signs and bridges. Automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs, can help police quickly identify cars that have been stolen or reported in connection with other crimes, but they also raise further concerns about privacy and discrimination.

Automatic license plate readers are a fast and effective way for police to locate stolen cars, but concerns have been raised over the collection and sharing of ALPR data.

As reported by Al Jazeera America’s “The Stream,” the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) attempted to contact the Los Angeles Police Department for information on its ALPR data collection and sharing policies, but were told that information was unavailable because all cars in the Los Angeles metropolitan area are under investigation.

"All ALPR data is investigatory — regardless of whether a license plate scan results in an immediate 'hit' because, for instance, the vehicle may be stolen, the subject of an 'Amber Alert,' or operated by an individual with an outstanding arrest warrant," reads the LAPD’s brief.  

The department’s attitude toward ALPR data has increased concerns from the ACLU and other civil liberties groups.

"Police can and should treat location information from ALPRs like other sensitive information. They should retain it no longer than necessary to determine if it might be relevant to a crime and get a warrant if they need to keep it any longer," says ACLU-SC senior staff attorney Peter Bibring. "They should limit who can access it, who they can share it with, and create an oversight system to make sure the limits are followed."

In a city with constant police helicopter activity (the LAPD has the world’s largest municipal airborne law enforcement operation), unregulated license plate data collection is likely the next step toward a more high-surveilled public — whether they like it or not.


The debate between public safety and privacy is not unique to the United States.

“If you go to a place like Britain, and more specifically London, that is even more surveilled [than U.S. cities],” says “TechKnow” contributor Kyle Hill when discussing Moran’s surveillance story. “You can’t go to basically any public space without being on camera.”

In fact, the British Security Industry Authority (BSIA) estimated there are up to 5.9 million closed-circuit television cameras in the country, including 750,000 in “sensitive locations” such as schools, hospitals and care homes. The civil liberties group Big Brother Watch estimated a four-year cost of this sophisticated surveillance system at around $800 million, but law enforcement professionals believe that the security benefits are worth the price.

“Effective CCTV schemes are an invaluable source of crime detection and evidence for the police,” said Simon Adcock of the BSIA. “For example, in 2009, 95 percent of Scotland Yard murder cases used CCTV footage as evidence.”


To learn more about surveillance technology, watch "TechKnow," Saturday 7ET/4PT.

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