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The Patriot Act, the Pros of Surveillance Cameras and Cons of Privacy

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The use of surveillance technology within the United States has changed drastically in the post-9/11 era. The increase of this technology, along with other important social media features, has made police closer than ever to the community that they patrol. However, some may feel that surveillance technology can make the police a little too close. With social media outlets and cameras available at the tip of everyone’s fingers, it can be hard to handle the problem of protecting people’s privacy rights. Whether it be inside a police department or inside a court, there have been many disputes regarding how far the government can intrude on people’s privacy. The most important court case that has upheld privacy rights and has set a precedent for all current court cases is Katz v. United States in 1967. This supreme court case has stated that the fourth amendment provides privacy protections to a person who reasonably believes they had an expectation of privacy, and they were not in a public setting (Brassil, 2009). This court case is the backbone of the controversy surrounding today’s privacy rights in the new world of technology.

This paper will touch on the history and disadvantages of surveillance cameras due to people believing that surveillance cameras may intrude their fourth amendment rights. Then, further assessments will discuss advantages of surveillance cameras, despite privacy issues, and how they have reduced the level of crime in cities across the nation. It will then delve into how the role for this technology has been changed, how surveillance systems can be improved, and new technologies that can help police reduce crime while simultaneously giving citizens their privacy rights.

History of Surveillance Cameras

Surveillance cameras have been implemented inside police departments in the United States since the 1970s. The violent civil rights riots of the 1960s incentivized surveillance cameras after society began to realize the police needed to be held accountable for their actions. In the next couple of decades there were new sets of training programs and reforms in place to change the way policing was carried out. However, everything abruptly came to a halt when the terrible events of September 11, 2001 occurred. The terrorist acts led by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda created a “war on terror,” with the aftermath of these wars still being felt today. The changes of September 11th even oversaw President George W. Bush create a new department within the government known as the Department of Homeland Security. This department has transformed surveillance practices in the United States to this day (Bloss, 2007).

Instead of America protecting the privacy of public citizens in the United States, America was now fighting a war and putting all the focus into information gathering and intelligence. The safety of America was of utmost importance; therefore, privacy rights were deemed a trivial matter. Soon, just about everything was able to be searched in order to protect the citizens due to passage of the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act was a controversial act that allowed the police to have greater access to conduct investigations and invade the privacy of citizens in order to get to the truth. Surveillance cameras were just one of the many tools available to federal agents, along with phone calls, emails, and other information sharing sources that could easily be tapped into without the agents ever disclosing that they were doing so (Bloss, 2007).

This extreme invasion of privacy created a certain level of distrust in the government and many law-abiding citizens believed the government was overstepping their boundaries. In fact, the Patriot Act still creates tension among citizens to this day since it does not ever seem to be eliminated as a policy. It was set to expire in 2005 and has now been extended even into 2019 when there is no longer an imminent threat from Al Qaeda. The government has disadvantaged its credibility among citizens with the passage of the Patriot Act; however, updated surveillance camera policies and the abolishment of the Patriot Act could restore people’s faith that surveillance cameras are being used for the right reasons.

Reducing Crime and Advantages of Surveillance Cameras for Police Departments in Different Areas


Despite the privacy problems that have been created in the early twenty-first century, there can still be multiple advantages that come along with the use of surveillance cameras. In fact, looking at the advantages of surveillance cameras may be vital to help citizens feel safe and show that they are needed for the right reasons. The utilization of surveillance cameras around a town or city are most important in that they have been found to effectively reduce crime in an area. One crucial pilot study in Philadelphia sought to find the answers on whether surveillance cameras can reduce crime. This study based its hypothesis on the rational choice theory and believed that cameras in certain locations would reduce crime if the person being watched knew that they were being monitored and that the risk of being caught by the police would be too high for them to want to commit the crime. After studying the impact of implementing certain cameras in certain locations of the city, it was found that there was no significant difference in about half of the twelve locations. However, at four sites there was a significant reduction in crime, especially serious crime, and overall there was a thirteen percent reduction in total crime in all the areas (Ratcliffe et al., 2009).

What seemed to make this study crucial was the fact that it found that the choice of location for implementing the camera was more important than what type of camera was placed. The best results showed that while carried out together, the location of the camera and other crime reducing techniques employed by the police had the most deterrent effect. Additionally, cameras in an area with improved lighting were found to reduce crime even more. Pilot studies like this are important to lower any doubts of what works with surveillance cameras and reinforce what future studies of surveillance cameras need to look at (Ratcliffe et al., 2009).


Another surveillance camera study conducted in the state of Maryland also showed improved reductions of crime post-implementation of the cameras. Mayor O’Malley in 2005 implemented public surveillance cameras in Baltimore due to the extreme prevalence of crime impacting the area. In fact, in 2003 Baltimore was ranked the seventh most dangerous city in the United States because of violent crimes. As the years went on, Baltimore officials continued to update their technology and made sure the cameras were visible and well-advertised to the public. Soon, Baltimore started getting so many cameras that the police department had to hire staff for a whole surveillance department that would work around the clock. The type of staff that were recommended and preferred for the job were retired police officers that knew the area and it was beneficial for creating new jobs in the city and giving hope to citizens.

The data collected from the surveillance camera project in Baltimore was collected from 2003 to 2008. The results of the study show that, in all the districts studied, especially the downtown Baltimore area, crime was significantly reduced within months after camera-implementation. Even though the initial costs of implementing the cameras and annual maintenance costs to care for the cameras were high, Baltimore officials decided that the benefits highly outweighed the costs; however, their only regret was that they did not wait later for technology to be a bit more advanced. This was because Baltimore faced challenges with using the footage in court due to grainy footage or bad lighting. In contradiction to Philadelphia, it seemed more important to have advanced cameras rather than good location setting in order to make implementation worth it.

Luckily, surveillance cameras have become more cost-effective and advanced over the years with higher HD quality, due to the introduction of PTZ cameras. PTZ cameras can zoom in and out within long distances, and they can rotate 360 degrees. Therefore, it may have been more cost-beneficial for the city of Baltimore to buy more PTZ cameras so that more than one area could be viewed with just one camera.


Another study of how surveillance cameras have reduced crime comes from Terry Hilliard who was the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department. Terry implemented a new program in 2003 known as “Operation Disruption.” This operation allocated thirty new portable cameras that could be controlled by police officers in their patrol cars which allowed for quick responses to the already extremely violent crimes going on in the Chicago city. After the implementation of these thirty cameras became a success, Terry and many other key departments of the city launched a widespread number of cameras all over the city from 2003 to 2007. Chicago to this day now has over 8,000 cameras from this process which has kept crime in check. Overall, Chicago found that implementing the cameras was a better choice for the city and that they increased almost three dollars in total crime-reduction benefits for every dollar spent on the cameras.

The results of the data collected on crime rates from 2003 to 2007 showed significant reductions in crime rates in the months after implementation of the cameras. However, there was one area that was not found to have any significant reductions in crime rates. This was because the area did not have as many cameras placed there, per square mile, compared to the other areas studied. This result showed that deterrence effects can be decreased when people feel they can get away with committing crimes easier because they do not think they have been seen. Therefore, Chicago agreed with Philadelphia in the sense that location choice may be better than camera quality choice. This was due to the one area that did not reduce their crime level because the city did not place as many cameras in that area. However, they also noted that one should be cautious before buying all the newest and greatest technology. It is important to assess if it is worth it, and what the technology is capable of, especially because technology changes so fast within a few years.

Washington D.C

After the events of September 11th, Washington D.C. became another central hub that progressed with the idea of surveillance technology. Charles Ramsey, the then-chief of the Washington D.C. Police Department, declared a “crime emergency” in 2006 which went above and beyond what other cities had accomplished. In fact, the entire planning process for camera installation only took thirty-eight days. By 2007, Washington D.C. had over seventy-three cameras installed that were PTZ cameras, had bulletproof casings, and were advertised very well to the community. After careful data collection, most of the seven districts studied within Washington D.C. saw reduction in crime in post-implementation with a 10 percent decrease in crime since 2006; however, there was a spike in the summer months of 2007 and 2008 where crime was on the rise for the first couple months and returned to pre-implementation camera levels. This worried Washington D.C. officials and they began an assessment of what may have gone wrong with crime rates.

The reason for this problem has been assessed and it has believed to be because of the limited resources and swiftness of the camera installations. There may not have been enough staff to keep up with the demands of active monitoring. This could then have led to the decreased ability of the cameras deterring crime. This is because active monitoring allows a crime to be seen while it is happening. If people look at the footage after-the-fact, it may be more granular and not have great zooming capabilities which can cause it to be unusable in court. Even though Washington D.C. reduced crime the least with their camera implementation, they learned a valuable lesson that it is important not to rush a city-wide process of implementing cameras, and to ensure that everything is accounted for before going straight into the process. This study recommended that cities and towns advantage themselves by learning all the facts and taking citizen’s opinions into account before fully implementing cameras.

Overall, all the cities could agree that a high-quality camera is something worth waiting for before making a choice to implement cameras within a city. However, cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago believe that setting cameras in hot-spot locations were even more important for the city individually. Every city and town work in different ways, and one way that reductions in crime are found in an area may not work for another area..

Improving Surveillance and Privacy Rights for the Future

Surveillance cameras have become an essential tool in many major cities and towns. Staying involved with the community and researching the technologies of the future are of utmost importance for reducing crime and improving the privacy rights of citizens. For example, more research could be done on a recently invented technological system known to reduce crime called ShotSpotter. This new technology can interconnect surveillance cameras with itself and not only visually show where a shooter is located but hear where the shot came from as well. Cities can consider how this new technology in hot spot areas could reduce crime when the surveillance camera has the capacity to detect gunshots, increase the safety of citizens and police officers, and how it could allow the police to quickly know where the shooter is and reduce police officer deaths.

More research could also be done on technologies that have found ways to improve privacy rights without eliminating surveillance systems completely. One important study found a way to do this by having everyone carry a PED device, also known as a privacy enabling device. This device would have a person’s privacy preferences already embedded inside of it. This technology would entail a “location clearinghouse to receive communications from the active PED and then sanitize the video for its necessary purposes but blur the person’s face out” (cite). In other words, the person watching the footage would receive a person’s privacy preferences from their PED. The surveillance footage would still create a video and show the general idea of what occurred, but it would not allow any identifying information to be seen, such as a person’s face. Therefore, surveillance cameras would still be able to carry out the task that they are expected to perform, and the person can be satisfied with the knowledge that their expectation of privacy is still being fulfilled.

This technology also asserts the idea that no face should be unexpectedly unblurred without a person’s permission. In fact, stores and other public settings should have a mandatory duty to explain that a person is being watched so that people may turn on their PED and take the precautionary steps necessary that they have a right to take. The only problem foreseen with PED’s are that they use GPS location services to work. Some people believe that this is a flaw in the technology and defeats the purpose of protecting privacy. However, others believe it is no different than carrying a cell phone that has location technology. Plus, the person can turn off their PED whenever they want, and only turn it on when they have an expectation that they are being watched.

Face morphing is also another important technology that should be studied more that can increase a person’s privilege to privacy under the watch of surveillance cameras. This technology uses different sets of algorithms and key target points on a person’s face such as the eyes or nose to morph the pixels and make the face unrecognizable. Critics worry that too many people will be able to learn to un-morph the faces. However, to ensure high security, this technology should only allow a very low amount of security clearance and strict access to people who can un-morph the faces. Unfortunately, surveillance cameras and their advantages and disadvantages are still severely understudied in criminal justice research. This technology is still so new and always updating itself that it may take a long time for criminologists to investigate this more. However, this type of research is certainly necessary as society becomes more updated going further into the twenty-first century.


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  2. Bloss, W. (2009). Transforming US police surveillance in a new privacy paradigm. Police Practice & Research, 10(3), 225–238. doi:10.1080/15614260802381083
  3. Brassil, J. (2009). Technical challenges in location-aware video surveillance privacy. Protecting Privacy in Video Surveillance, 91-113. doi:10.1007/978-1-84882-301-3_6
  4. Cheung, S. C., Venkatesh, M. V., Paruchuri, J. K., Zhao, J., & Nguyen, T. (2009). Protecting and managing privacy information in video surveillance systems. Protecting Privacy in Video Surveillance, 11-33. doi:10.1007/978-1-84882-301-3_2
  5. La Vigne, N. G., Lowry, S. S., Markman, J. A., & Dwyer, A. M. (2011). Evaluating the use of public surveillance cameras for crime control and prevention. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 1-152.
  6. Korshunov, P., & Ebrahimi, T. (2013). Using face morphing to protect privacy. International Conference on Advanced Video and Signal Based Surveillance, 208-213. doi:10.1109/AVSS.2013.6636641
  7. Ratcliffe, J., Taniguchi, T., & Taylor, R. (2009). The crime reduction effects of public CCTV cameras: A multi-method spatial approach. JQ: Justice Quarterly, 26(4), 746–770. doi:10.1080/07418820902873852
  8. Stalcup, M., & Hahn, C. (2016). Cops, cameras, and the policing of ethics. Theoretical Criminology, 20(4), 482–501. doi:10.1177/1362480616659814

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