- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 5, 2012

When D.C. police began installing surveillance cameras in neighborhoods more than five years ago as crime-fighting tools, privacy concerns voiced by civil liberties groups limited their scope and use.

Now a less-formal agreement from a citizens association planning to expand the Metropolitan Police Department’s watchful eye in Georgetown over the next few months is hitting a similar hurdle.

The Citizens Association of Georgetown, a private neighborhood association, plans to pay for the installation of up to 10 cameras in the hopes that the additional surveillance will deter crime.

“The No. 1 thing we would like is deterrence,” said Diane Colasanto, a member of the association’s public safety committee. “We just want crime not to happen here. But if crimes are committed, we hope the images from the cameras are images police can use.”

The Georgetown group’s cameras will tape public spaces such as streets and sidewalks, and video that could be used to solve a crime will be turned over to police, the group’s members said. The cameras will be located on private property, such as in residents’ yards, and as a result they will skirt the stringent rules imposed on the police department’s closed-circuit camera system.

With video-recording technology often just a cellphone click away and surveillance cameras prevalent in private businesses and homes, the notion of being watched is nothing new. But as the association begins to draft protocols for how the camera recordings will be handled, Ms. Colasanto said members have begun to raise more questions about who will have access to video taken by the cameras and under what circumstances.

“We want to make sure people’s privacy is protected,” she said.

Privacy concerns

A new wave of public-private surveillance partnerships, such as the one in Georgetown, has also caught the attention of civil liberties groups who caution that the original intention of a camera system is not the only way it can end up being used.

“Once the camera is there it’s very tempting to say ‘Let’s look at it for other reasons,’ ” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital.

As an example, Mr. Spitzer said, a divorce lawyer might try to subpoena surveillance footage that could show evidence of a spouse’s affair by recording the person’s travels through the neighborhood.

“Once something exists, it can often be hard to protect it from being used in other ways,” he said.

Before installing the first of what is now 83 crime cameras monitoring D.C. neighborhoods after a 2006 crime wave, the Metropolitan Police Department adopted regulations governing their use, including the dictate that signs must be posted around their locations and that residents be informed of their implementation. Rules also governed who was allowed to view feeds from the cameras, how often the recordings were deleted and the viewpoint the cameras could have.

But no such rules are in place governing private cameras or the guarantee that citizens installing cameras will be versed in privacy issues, said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel with the D.C.-based Constitution Project.

“When you have such routine and regularized recording by a private group that is not covered by those regulations, it raises concerns,” she said. “They could be subject to various abuses through ignorance of the kind of concerns they should have.”

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