Privacy Concerns Arise with City’s Video Surveillance

Tue, Aug 18, 2009

Video Surveillance

Chip Smedley of – the online wing of several Pennsylvanian publications – recently wrote a great piece about video surveillance law. Recently, the town of Lancaster installed cameras in public areas, which got locals talking about what is and what isn’t legal about video surveillance.

Smedley spoke with two experts – Clifford Fishman, a professor at The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, former New York City assistant district attorney, and author of “Wiretapping and Eavesdropping.” The other expert, local attorney Len Brown, is a part time judge advocate in the U.S. Army Reserve, and works in the Joint Operations Center, which oversees military activity in and around Washington, D.C.

Smedley first asked the two what is considered public and private:

“The Supreme Court, Fishman says, has taken the general approach that what a person knowingly exposes to the public — even in his own home or office — is not constitutionally protected.

While out in public, he says, people have virtually no right to privacy of any kind from visual surveillance.

No federal law governs video surveillance by private citizens or organizations like the coalition, he and Brown say. And virtually no federal law — other than the Fourth Amendment — covers police video surveillance.”

There are many laws on the books regarding audiotaping, though there are very few concerning videotaping. Fisherman and Brown believe that the lack of laws is due to politics and strong opinions on each side.

“The large and powerful telecommunications industry wants to protect its customers, which motivates specific legislation against wiretapping or bugging,” says Fishman.

On the other hand, ” … the Justice Department likes the law the way it is, because it allows visual surveillance of public conduct.”

Both experts agree that individuals must follow the same guidelines regarding video surveillance in and around their homes. “If a person films a neighbor’s property, that’s not necessarily illegal. If that person points the camera toward the street curb, and it films people walking by, that’s fine, too,” says Fishman. However, if the camera operator continues to follow and film an individual, even after he’s asked to stop, that encounter could be considered harassment.

Even though cities have the law and the supreme court on their side, some organizations like the ACLU are fighting to have these video surveillance systems taken down. They claim the municipal video surveillance has not been proven effective, it’s susceptible to abuse, and there are very few limits and controls on public camera use.

Source: Lancaster Online

2 Responses to “Privacy Concerns Arise with City’s Video Surveillance”

  1. Pete Says:

    I appreciate this article. To often it seems that our line of work is scarred by how close the line is walked between privac and safety.


  1. [...] try to redefine the notion of what can and should be private. Many people agree that while the legalities of public videotaping are still somewhat murky, anyone who is in a public space must accept that he or she relinquishes [...]

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