Privacy SOS

Just say no: Surveillance cameras are ineffective, expensive, and violate our rights

Tomorrow, the Cambridge government will hold a public meeting to discuss the future of video surveillance in the city. The stakes are high, and the meeting could be a turning point for privacy rights in Massachusetts. 

Cambridge Surveillance Policy Meeting
Thursday, September 26, 2013 at 6pm
Cambridge City Hall
795 Massachusetts Avenue
The ACLU will be there to explain our opposition to enhanced monitoring of public places in Cambridge, as well as to explain our critique of the draft surveillance camera policy that the police department has proposed. You can read the ACLU's full testimony here.

If you live in Cambridge and you care about your privacy, please consider coming to the meeting to raise your voice. Below is an excerpt of our testimony to the city government. If you'd like to submit your own, you may follow instructions for doing so here.

Excerpt of ACLU of Massachusetts public testimony to the Cambridge city government, on the question of enhanced surveillance and the use of DHS funded cameras on public streets:

National Context: The Rise of the Surveillance State

Cambridge is considering expanding surveillance camera use at a pivotal moment in United States history.  Government surveillance of ordinary Americans has never been more ubiquitous or indiscriminate.  In recent years, powerful advances in technology have enabled previously unimaginable monitoring and recording of ordinary activity, and the capacity to assemble and share digital dossiers with ease.  At the same time, wide-ranging, no-end-in-sight “wars” on drugs and terrorism have been used to try to justify pre-emptive, suspicionless surveillance of the entire population.

After 9/11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security catalyzed a transfer of funds, technologies, strategies, and tactics from the military and intelligence worlds down to the state and local levels. These transfers are part of a larger, dangerous trend of powerful and largely unaccountable federal agencies conscripting local police to act as eyes and ears for the national surveillance state. The National Security Agency’s modus operandi – collect it all – is antidemocratic on its face, and yet it is the driving force behind these efforts.

This proposal to expand the use of surveillance cameras in Cambridge is part and parcel of the national trend, both in fact and in spirit.  This is clearly the case for Cambridge’s Critical Infrastructure Monitoring System (CIMS) cameras, the vision and funding for which come directly from the federal Department of Homeland Security.  These cameras are networked to allow shared real-time access with law enforcement in nine municipalities in the metro Boston region, and also possibly with federal agencies, a prospect that raises particularly serious concerns.  But employing any camera system to monitor everyday activity – even a system that is locally developed and locally funded – signals the same profound, damaging cultural shift.  That means accepting government monitoring as an antidote to existential insecurity and, in doing so, conceding our innate freedom to be left alone, to live our ordinary lives away from the microscope of unwarranted suspicion.

Suspicionless, mass surveillance threatens the very bedrock of what makes the City of Cambridge so exceptional. While the greatest minds in the world come to Cambridge to debate, learn, invent, and create, mass surveillance stifles freedom of thought, professional risk taking, creative expression, and social and political progress.  We must reject the surveillance state in Cambridge to reaffirm what makes the city great, and place a stake in the ground in defense of our most cherished values.

Fact v. Myth: Cameras Do Not Prevent Terrorism or Serious Violent Crime

Not only does public video surveillance undermine our ideals; it does not accomplish what proponents claim – deterrence of serious criminal activity. 

Part of rejecting fear as a policy motivator requires thinking critically about each and every proposal that will strip the people of our rights, and give more power to the government.  Our first question must be: Will this proposal do what its advocates say it will do? Will it work? When it comes to the efficacy of surveillance cameras as a crime deterrent, the Cambridge Police Department’s draft surveillance camera policy is highly misleading.

One of the principal myths about surveillance cameras, which is repeated in the draft policy, is that they deter terrorist attacks. There is zero evidence to suggest that surveillance cameras stop terrorism. In fact, every major terrorist attack in the Western Hemisphere over the past decade has been at least partially caught on camera.  London was the most heavily monitored city in the world in 2005, but its vast, government camera network did not stop terrorists from blowing up a train and killing scores.  Sadly, people who are determined to do grave harm to their fellow human beings do not balk at doing so on camera.

Without a doubt, cameras can sometimes help investigators identify suspects, or give them clues. But as we saw in Boston this spring, the ubiquity of private and existing public camera systems make increased monitoring unnecessary.  In the immediate aftermath of the Marathon bombing, the investigating authorities easily accessed existing private cameras, which pointed them to the suspects quickly and efficiently.

Of course, the proliferation of privately operated surveillance cameras raises its own set of privacy questions, but individual systems run by businesses are preferable to networked government systems when it comes to our individual liberties.

Government systems, like the networked DHS system Cambridge police want to turn on, enable a kind of pervasive monitoring far more invasive and subject to abuse than the discrete cameras owned and operated by businesses or private parties.

The Cambridge Police Department’s proposed camera policy incorrectly implies that its camera system will help to deter both terrorist attacks and ordinary criminal activity. In fact, most studies show that cameras have no meaningful impact on criminal activity whatsoever.[1]  Other studies show that cameras have a displacement effect: they simply drive crime into areas where there are no cameras.[2]  And at least one study, from Chicago, showed that crime actually increased when surveillance cameras were installed on public transit platforms.[3]  The evidence simply does not support a conclusion that cameras keep people safe.

The draft policy does Cambridge residents a disservice by ignoring the research about surveillance cameras and public safety.  This technology will not deter crime; it will impact our civil liberties without measurably improving our security.  Tellingly, the policy also promises that video surveillance will make residents feel safe, saying it will “reduce the fear of crime.”  That’s security theater, not good public policy.  Cambridge doesn’t need a technological security blanket.  It would be a dangerous mistake to trade in our civil liberties for a false promise of security. 

Why Spend Big Money to Undermine Our Values and Fail to Make Us Safer?

Embracing video surveillance would also be enormously expensive.  Given that it is also invasive and ineffective, we are certain that Cambridge has many worthier things to spend money on, from more uniformed officers who can engage in meaningful community policing to meeting the long-standing goal of providing universal kindergarten. 

Cambridge should not be fooled into the illusion that “free” technology from the federal government has no price tag.  The CIMS network, initially funded by Homeland Security, would require significant local expenditures – for training, staffing, and maintenance costs long after the initial outlay by DHS.  And the city’s own network would certainly involve the same costs for personnel and upkeep on top of millions of dollars up front merely to purchase and install the system.  Cambridge should invest its limited resources more wisely

[1]Nick Taylor, Closed Circuit Television: The British Experience, 1999 Stan. Tech. L. Rev. 11, 1 (1999).  Gill & Spriggs, “Assessing the Impact of CCTV”, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate (2005); see Biale, supra note 7, at 3-4.

[2]Jennifer King, et al., CITRIS Report: The San Francisco Community Safety Camera Program: An Evaluation of Effectiveness of San Francisco’s Community Safety Cameras, UC Berkeley, CITRIS (2008)(hereinafter CITRIS).

[3]Peters, Justin, “Chicago Installed Thousands of Cameras on its Rail Platforms. Crime Jumped by 21 Percent”, February 26, 2013,

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.