To the Editor:
As a recent transplant to the Pittsburgh area, I am incredibly disappointed to learn that my new home town is looking to turn down the path of pervasive surveillance. Despite promises of benefits, cities that have implemented large camera networks cannot show any signs of those benefits materializing. Given the inherent risks in allowing the government to collect huge amounts of data about what people do in their daily lives, we must examine these questions very carefully: "Do surveillance cameras carry benefits? And do those benefits outweigh the costs?"
To be direct - large, city-wide networks of surveillance cameras do not provide a measurable benefit to law enforcement. It is a seemingly common-sense assurance that a city-wide network of cameras will deter crime and make it easier to prosecute. The reality, however, is quite different. The British Home Office examined Britain's network of over 4 million cameras, 200,000 of which are in London, and found that this incredibly expansive network did nothing to deter crime.
Nor do these cameras deter terrorists- as London unfortunately discovered a few years ago. In fact, those cameras recorded a dry run of the 7/7/06 attack nine days prior, but with so much recorded information, and so many people looking at it, no one was able to recognize it for what it was.
Reading some of the comments made by people like District Attorney Zappala, I wonder if the reality of the situation even matters. He certainly implied as much by claiming that video evidence somehow makes prosecuting drunk driving easier! I find it difficult to believe that a surveillance video could actually prove that someone was intoxicated. Even if it could, that point is moot. No camera has ever pulled over a drunk driver. We don't need home videos of people being drunken fools, we need human police officers actively taking these people off the road. Nor can you claim that cameras are a deterrent to drunk driving. If they had enough wits about them to make rational decisions, they probably wouldn't be driving drunk in the first place. The only deterrent, again, is human officers pulling these people off the road.
Let me be clear: there is a role for security cameras, but not as a city-wide network. If we look at the most effective uses of security cameras, they are in situations where there are very specific things to watch for. Crime can take many forms, but at a gas station, we want to protect the cash register and the pumps. When securing private property, we're interested in watching the entrances and exits. When there are specific things to watch for, cameras can be a valuable aid. But to watch for the very general concept of "crime" across a city the size of Pittsburgh- this is not a situation where cameras are valuable.
Given the dubious value of a network of surveillance cameras, can we justify the risk? Before rolling out such a plan, we need to know: Who has access? How are we securing the system against unauthorized access? What are the security risks to individual citizens, whose private lives are suddenly recorded every time they step on public spaces? Perhaps, if there were something to gain from a network of cameras, we could work through some meaningful answers to these questions. But city-wide surveillance will not make us safer. It hasn't made London, New York, or Chicago safer. Why would it work here?
So what can we do to become safer? Take every penny of that $3.4 million dollars and spend it where it really will do some good- hire, train and equip as many police officers as that money will buy. Cameras might be cheaper than good police officers, but the best camera in the world is worthless by comparison to a real, live human being ready to help.
You only get what you pay for.