It could be perched on a utility pole which it’s eye fixed on cars flashing through an intersection. It can render a judgment for police against a motorist who takes liberties with a traffic signal; or maybe it’s watching you stroll outside a public building, or its lens scans the concrete ramp of a parking garage after midnight.
Surveillance cameras are popping up in various public locations in Hampton Roads; a watchful eye against human misbehavior. Privacy advocates call it something else.
“ When the government puts cameras up in public places, like parks and sidewalks, we believe it is infringing on the individual right to privacy,” says Kent Willis, Executive Director of American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. “The government has no right to track your movements unless it suspects you, individually, of being engaged in a criminal activity.”
Tracking criminal activity is the primary motivation of private business as it releases those grainy recordings of robberies, burglaries and other misdeeds that wind up on WAVY-TV. There’s no evidence to suggest surveillance in these cases “deters” criminals, but police say it greatly aids in the apprehension of those who commit these acts.
“I can say it helps us immensely as investigators,” says Detective Allison Erickson from Newport News Police. That city has seen a 33 percent drop in violent crime over the last decade. Police will not go so far as to say that decrease is linked to more use of surveillance cameras, but investigators say it’s been a help. “In cases where we may not have a witness, it gives us a witness,” says Erickson.
But the increasing presence of these electronic witnesses also concerns the ACLU.
“Keep in mind that while most cameras can now only be used to identify you in case of a crime, the way technology is developing, it won’t be long before those cameras can identify you by name. We are not far away from a time when the government may be able to know when you left your house, where you went and what you did. That should truly frighten us,” says Willis.
Mark Dionne who owns Eagle Security Solutions, a Chesapeake company which installs surveillance systems, sees it differently, ”Certainly if you’re in public, you have no expectation of privacy, and if you have no expectation of privacy, then I don’t care where you have a camera at that point.”