Privacy Concerns Continue To Grow With Use of Video Surveillance

July 7, 2008 - 8:04 PM

(CNSNews.com) - Images of Madelyne Gorman Toogood striking her 4-year-old daughter continue to be replayed on cable and local news channels across the country, even as Toogood apologized and pleaded not guilty on Monday.

The news media's fascination with the video illustrates the privacy concerns in cases arising from surveillance technology, an expert with the Electronic Privacy Information Center told CNSNews.com.

Mihir Kshirsagar, the center's policy analyst, said people are routinely taped at locations ranging from parking lots, as Toogood was, to city streets, as police in Washington, D.C., plan to do later this week for protests of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings.

Security professionals defend the use of video surveillance in deterring crime, but Kshirsagar said even if some people are discouraged from striking a child in public, that alone is not sufficient justification for implementing a Big Brother approach.

"Maybe [the abuse incident] serves as a lesson to some people," he said. "But it also serves as lesson that what you do in a parking lot can be transmitted around the country. It might make people afraid of who is watching them in public. That is not something we want to happen."

Toogood has not complained that the tape was an invasion of her privacy. Instead, she has apologized for hitting her daughter and admitted she looked like a "monster" in the video. She is facing felony battery charges and could face up to three years in jail.

The incident took place outside Kohl's department store in Mishawaka, Ind. A store manager referred all questions to corporate headquarters. Calls to a company vice president, Susan Henderson, were not returned.

David Boyd, president of Opticom Technologies Inc., a dealer of surveillance equipment, said it appeared the video camera was mounted on the outside wall of the building and used primarily to scan for potential thieves.

"Are you going to say that the camera shouldn't have been there? That camera was on a building and it tracked the person out of the store and watched her go to her car," Boyd said. "Some would say that's an invasion of privacy, but it might deter a half-dozen other people who may have had the same idea."

Boyd said more people are turning to surveillance technology to catch criminals and deter others from committing crimes. He said in the past few years, his company has seen sales jump by 20 percent to 30 percent each year.

"We've had customers who have put systems in and they've caught major fraud," Boyd said. "It's a deterrent."

On the streets of Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Police Department has been using about 14 cameras to monitor major events to help police control crowds. They will employ some of those cameras later this week when protesters come to town for the IMF meetings.

Department spokesman Kevin Morrison said police began using the surveillance system a year ago in response to the terrorist attacks. Since then, officers in a command center use the cameras to keep an eye on unruly activity.

One of Kshirsagar's greatest fears is the government using video surveillance to watch people on the streets of Washington, D.C. Although police in the nation's capital do not record images, measures by the government and private businesses in London have resulted in the installation of more than 300,000 cameras.

Estimates from Privacy International, a group that opposes the use of government video surveillance, suggest that individuals in London could be recorded up to 300 times per day by cameras. No such study has been conducted in the United States, but Boyd estimated that individuals could be caught on camera about seven times per day, depending on where they were located in North America.

Kshirsagar said he recognizes the right of a private business to use video surveillance, but he still worries about taping people in public places, such as a parking lot. More worrisome, he said, was the use of cameras by the government to quell protesters and suppress free speech.

"You might have a real chilling effect on public protests if people who come to the protests do not know that their images are being recorded," he said. "There might possibly be personably identifiable information that might be used to create profiles. That would chill protected First Amendment activities."

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