You try to be discreet as you enter the psychiatrist’s office; it is a private matter, after all. And when you lost your temper at your kids in the parking lot, you were relieved that no one else was around. But even when it appears that no one can see you, or that you’re alone, chances are that someone – or something – is really watching you. Thanks to ever present security cameras, video footage of any of us in, what may sometimes appear to be compromising or embarrassing situations, may very well exist in all kinds of places. These recordings are often owned and controlled by private individuals, who have few legal obligations and little oversight with respect to what they do with these videos.

With the increasing ubiquity of surveillance cameras, some rights advocates are claiming that the perceived benefits of an abundance of cameras is not worth the risks to our privacy. In a recent assessment, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) published a report which concluded that, “In certain situations cameras do afford us an important sense of safety: when they watch the entryway of our apartment buildings or the loading dock of our businesses. But there is an equal, if not greater, number of situations in which cameras become not protective, but invasive.”

At the same time, elected officials from both parties and at every level of government seem to be funding and promoting the addition of more cameras throughout the city. City Councilman James Vacca, responding to heightening drug and gangs crimes, told reporters that he demanded more security cameras for the area. And city lawmakers have recently put forward a security initiative that they believe will, at a minimum, help make identifying criminals easier, and, hopefully, also provide deterrence. On a state level, over the past six years, dozens of New York synagogues and other Jewish organizations have been awarded federal grants worth tens of millions of dollars from The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for “target hardening” equipment and upgrades, which have largely consisted of surveillance cameras and related equipment. This year, 42 New York-based Jewish organizations each received $75,000 for cameras and related equipment, for a total of over $3 million and an estimated 1,000 cameras – some of which could be sophisticated enough to automatically recognize your face.

But the real granddaddy of high-tech surveillance systems will be in and around Ground Zero. DHS has bankrolled a slew of New York surveillance cameras through a $201 million project called the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, which is expected to be completed in about a year. Dubbed by some the “Ring of Steel,”, the project involves a myriad of cameras, license plate readers and radiation detectors aimed at protecting the area from terrorist attack.

Protective – or Invasive?

But the NYCLU does not believe that 3,000 new cameras popping up in the next 12 months is a good thing. In its recent assessment, the organization spotted more than 8,000 cameras across New York – not including cameras at ATMs, stores and other private buildings. That’s a sixfold increase since 1998, they assert. They also found nearly 4,200 cameras stationed below 14th Street in 2006, more than five times the number counted in 1998. The largest camera boom was in Greenwich Village and SoHo, where the report’s count was 2,227, compared with 142 in 1998.

The biggest problem, they say, is that there is practically no regulation governing how these recordings can be used. Recovering addicts going to rehab might not want footage of their entry into a clinic to be floating around. And many people prefer not having documented proof of their participation in a highly charged political demonstration. But with cameras everywhere, this footage likely exists, and what happens to it is anyone’s guess.

In light of these concerns, the NYCLU has called for government regulation of surveillance cameras, conceding that cameras are here to stay, but advocating that use of the footage be restricted by the law. The union has also called for the  right of pedestrians to know when they are being recorded and for residents to have a say in where and how cameras are installed, as well as how long the footage can remain stored.

State privacy guidelines allow cameras to be aimed at public places “where no reasonable expectation of privacy exists” and stipulate that video recordings must be disposed of within 30 days, unless the authorities believe there’s good reason to do otherwise. But the NYCLU feels that these measures aren’t enough. In a 25-page report published in the fall of 2006 called, “Who’s Watching: video camera surveillance in New York City and the need for public oversight,” the union charged that the city’s security measures fail to take into account the infringement on privacy. “The City Council has given little consideration to the potential negative impact of video surveillance cameras on individual rights and liberties,” the report contends. It adds that no studies have been conducted to determine whether tax dollars for cameras are better spent on more police, and no real legislation is in place outlining the appropriate use of surveillance data

The Deterrence Debate

The NYCLU’s position generally centers on the question of whether surveillance cameras are an effective deterrent against criminal activity, an issue regarding which they and police officials couldn’t be further apart. In 2006, the commanding officer of the police department’s Technical Assistance Response Unit claimed that the department’s video program had helped lower the city’s crime rate. The NYCLU countered that the drop was a result of the deployment of larger numbers of officers in high crime areas. Meanwhile, a study out of New York University, based on five years of evidence (2002-2006) from Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, concluded that cameras do not deter crime much, if at all. Three other studies, spanning the 25 years from 1978 to 2002, focused on lower-crime situations and found that the cameras’ impact on reducing crime was statistically inconclusive.

Camera surveillance programs throughout the US have apparently had mixed success in the effort to deter criminals, according to reports. A certain community in Syracuse, for example, set up nine cameras in 2010 and saw violent crimes drop by 50 percent within a year. In the high-crime city of East Orange, N.J., surveillance cameras, up-to-the-second police reports and electronic listening devices mounted around the city helped reduce crime by 50 percent between 2003 and 2006 – with murders declining by nearly two-thirds and robberies reduced by half.In 2008, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Samuelson Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley reported that property crimes dropped in San Francisco by one- fifth within 100 feet of cameras, but no changes were found further away from the lens. The researchers could not definitively conclude whether the disparity was a mere fluke, or whether the visible cameras were indeed a deterrent.

Camera efficacy in Los Angeles was the subject of a study conducted through the University of Southern California School of Policy, Planning and Development, which released a report to the California Research Bureau in May 2008. The study revealed no statistical change in crimes pre and post cameras, but the researchers conceded that analyzing the data is no simple matter, as crime rates depend on a wide range of factors, such as police presence in the area, reported crimes, lighting, and “possible displacement of crime to other areas.”

Keystone Cameras

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued what it called a “White Paper” examining the ever-pervasive cameras in the United Kingdom, and their results from 2000-2008. ACLU officials say that the UK has embraced widespread video surveillance to a greater extent than any other country, and that based on the research they’ve culled, ultimately, they have had “no statistically significant impact on crime.” According to the report, there is one camera for every 14 people in the UK, which has a population of about 65 million.  “The British Home Office, the agency in charge of security, spent 78% of its criminal justice budget in the 1990’s on surveillance cameras,” says the ACLU – about $1 billion between 1995 and 2005.

A British police study called Crime Prevention Effects of Closed Circuit Television: A Systematic Review, released in 2002,reached generally similar conclusions. There were areas with more crimes, some with less, some with no changes – essentially, a statistical flatline. Another study was conducted through the same offices three years later, researched by criminologists Martin Gill and Angela Spriggs, and revealed that cameras yielded “no overall effect” on crime rates, and that just one in 13 camera sites showed a drop in crime. It was, nonetheless, a fine deterrent for vehicle crimes, and while burglaries decreased in the study area, it increased in a neighboring area.

Caught Red-Handed

But cameras are not only deployed as a deterrent. Law enforcement agencies routinely credit video evidence with helping to solve cases and bring criminals to justice. On Aug. 16, a surveillance camera at the Young Israel of Queens Valley caught a man stealing two silver Torah crowns, worth $650 a piece, from the congregation’s unlocked ark. About a week later, Brooklyn police announced the arrest of a man who burglarized the home of Rabbi Yehezkel Zion of Congregation Beth Torah in Midwood. Surveillance footage captured the man making off with a menorah worth nearly $10,000, along with other religious items.

Over the past few years, more serious crimes have also been solved using cameras. In the attempted bombing of Times Square in May, 2010, surveillance cameras caught Faisal Shahzad’s vehicle moving into the area, leading to his arrest. In London, images from security cameras helped identify four suicide bombers who attacked that city’s transit system in July 2005, killing 52 commuters.

Even from a deterrence perspective, cameras may have saved many lives. Federal prosecutors believe that cameras on the Brooklyn Bridge in 2003 dissuaded a man with al-Qaeda ties – Iyman Faris – from plotting an attack. Authorities decoded a message sent by Faris to colleagues in Pakistan saying, “The temperature was too hot” – meaning, security measures would make an attack unlikely to succeed. Faris is now serving a 20-year prison sentence.

The New York Police Department also maintains that the deterrent effect of security cameras was responsible for a 35 percent drop in crime in public housing soon after their installation in public spaces there.

The Cure for Crime

The assessment of the NYPD is buttressed by at least one academic who believes that security cameras have only a positive effect. “We’re certainly better off with more cameras…” says Professor of Security Management Robert McCrie of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “We’ve had cameras for over a half a century, but only within the last generation has digital camera availability had such an impact on law enforcement. It’s been a very powerful tool in bringing about apprehensions.” While he concedes that there “is a privacy expectation,” such as in bathrooms and changing rooms, “beyond these exceptions, there is a strong argument for organizations, including synagogues, to use the power that a close circuit can provide to enhance security.”

Firmly in the same camp, Assemblyman Dov Hikind(D-Brooklyn) asks bluntly, “How do you get the bad guys?” – if not for cameras. Hikind noted last summer’s tragic murder of an eight-year-old Hassidic boy in Boro Park as proof of the effectiveness – and importance – of surveillance cameras. “Do cameras help, does this make a difference? There’s no question. In the case of Leiby Kletzky, if not for that private person who had a security camera we might not know to this day what happened to Leiby.” The boy’s killer was recently convicted and imprisoned.

As for privacy concerns with security cameras, Assemblyman Hikind says he is unaware of anyone misusing surveillance data for nefarious purposes.

Situational Crime Prevention

Even if we assume that camera footage is not misused often, the question remains, is it worthwhile to place cameras in area A, knowing full well that criminals will then focus their efforts on area B?

When asked about the possibility of a criminal simply redirecting his efforts elsewhere upon seeing a camera, Professor McCrie points to a theory called Situational Crime Prevention, which suggests that making crime harder and riskier discourages crime in general. “This is a concept that goes back to the 1970s and is the basis for the strategy to make our communities, our businesses, our streets and our synagogues safer,” he says. “A lot of research is [being] done [to determine] what effects cameras might have on displacing crime from where the cameras are to somewhere else… but closed circuit TV has certainly been enormously powerful in effecting a decrease in crime.” Professor McCrie says that a former student of his is currently involved in a study that is surveying convicted burglars to find out if they would have committed the crime if they had known they were being watched.

But even if cameras simply transfer crime to other neighborhoods or targets that are unsupervised, crime displacement is strictly a dilemma for civic leaders. From an individual or an organizational perspective, the possibility of crime displacement is actually a powerful argument for installing surveillance cameras – to prevent the location from appearing to criminals as a soft target. If we assume that the presence of cameras influences criminals to seek other targets, then, in an area where many nearby buildings and residences have cameras, it stands to reason that as long as some sites don’t have visible cameras, those locations will face a higher probability of sustaining criminal activity.

Assemblyman Dov Hikind(D-Brooklyn), whoroundly credits cameras with handling the heavy lifting of police work, expresses no doubt about the benefits of more surveillance and the need to protect specific areas. Pointing to an initiative he championed to secure “a million dollars to put surveillance cameras throughout all the subway stops” in his district, which includes Boro Park and Midwood, the Assemblyman points to anecdotal evidence of security camera efficacy. “If anyone does anything in those stations, they’re on camera… The last time I checked I don’t think we had any crimes committed in all of these stations within our subway system, since we put those cameras in. I assume, if you’re a thief, maybe the first thing you want to look at is to see if there are any cameras around.”