Law professor raises concerns over police surveillance

State and local police departments are rapidly adopting mass digital surveillance technologies in an effort to fight crime and improve efficiency. However, the use of this type of advanced technology can raise significant privacy concerns, said Stephen Rushin, University law professor.

Rushin, who recently authored a paper that will be published in the Brooklyn Law Review next month, warns that the ever-increasing use of advanced surveillance technology such as red light cameras, automatic license plate readers, facial recognition software and surveillance cameras can create the opportunity for abuse and misuse.

Over the past few decades, the use of surveillance cameras by police departments in the U.S. has increased from only 20 percent in 1997 to nearly 70 percent in 2007, Rushin said.

The University of Illinois Police Department increased the number of security cameras monitoring activity on campus over the past three years, from 13 in 2008 to around 1,000 cameras today, said UIPD Chief of Police Jeff Christensen.

The images from all 1,000 cameras are sent to a centralized database on campus. The images are then stored on a server for a minimum of 30 days. However, if some of the video footage turns out to be evidence, they then record them on a DVD and place the DVD in their evidence room.

“The first thing that I show (in the study) is that there is a lot of empirical evidence showing that a lot of police departments, especially ones in urban areas, are starting to use this type of technology,” Rushin said. “But the important thing is not that they have it,it is what they’re doing with the information that they are gathering is what is worrisome to me.”

With the advent of surveillance cameras with biometric recognition and automatic license plate readers, Rushin is particularly concerned with data retention policies.

“The thing is that people have no expectation of privacy in public places, and while police officers must get a warrant before using certain types of technology, the courts generally don’t regulate efficiency-enhancing technologies,” Rushin said. “So what happens is that police departments end up with tons of data that they collect, and some departments have very good data retention policies and get rid of them, but other police departments just have tons and tons of data laying around.”

However, Christensen said UIPD has strict security camera policies to ensure the privacy of the members of the campus community and guests. For example, none of the security cameras record audio, according to the security camera policy website.

“A major tenet of our cam policy is that we respect the privacy of folks around the community,” Christensen said. “The information we get can only be used for investigative and public purposes. Our policies are pretty restrictive, and there is a very strong check and balance within the security camera policy.”

He added that he has to approve every request for access to the recordings, and that in order to get approval, the requests must pertain to investigations that relate to public safety.

Rushin said police departments hoarding data can be problematic and raises significant privacy concerns for law-abiding citizens.

“I think that this is a legitimate concern because whenever someone acquires data, they learn a lot about you,” Rushin said. “If I was to monitor you on the street once, I’m not going to learn very much. However, if I were to monitor you on the street every day, I’m going to know where you work, what kind of religion you affiliate with, what your political affiliation is, where you go to the doctor and what you do on your free time.”

Another problem that Rushin takes issue with is the potential misuse of secondhand data.

“This data might be collected to stop crime; however, there are a lot of possibilities for abuse as well,” Rushin said. “For example, data can be used to stifle local political competition and free speech, so some of the long-term perceived harms include a sort of erosion of privacy.”

The paper offers suggestions on how legislative bodies can limit data retention, identification and access and sharing of the data acquired by the digitally efficient surveillance technologies.

“I think that it’s really important that state legislators set up restrictions with data,” Rushin said. “I think that they ought to limit retention for about one year. It is a good balancing point because it’s long enough where they can use it for investigations but not any longer where they are just hoarding data. They also need to regulate who has access to the data because this isn’t like looking up info on phone records, this is tons and tons of data on people, and that is pretty concerning.”

Christensen said the University police work with American Civil Liberties Union standards to make sure that they are not abusing this type of new advanced technology.

“When we were getting all of this new technology in place, we went and made sure that we got the input of the ACLU to make sure that we were handling it properly,” Christensen said. “We recently had another meeting with the ACLU to get a status check on how we were doing, and they were pleased with the way that things were. We’re also familiar with Professor Rushin’s study and we’ve taken a look at it, and I’m sure we’ll get him in here sometime to discuss and get some advice on how to proceed in the future with this technology.”

Despite potential privacy concerns, LAS freshman Inas Mahmood prefers there to be more surveillance cameras around campus than fewer.

“I just feel safer with the surveillance cameras all over campus,” Mahmood said. “I don’t think that they’re a violation of privacy as long as they aren’t in bathrooms or locker rooms. They’re just there to keep students safe.”

Rushin also thinks that in hindsight, digital surveillance cameras provide more benefits than concerns. 

“The thing is, they’re not bad things,” Rushin said. “They’re actually really good and valuable tools. The real question here is once they use this technology, what will they do with all the information they acquire?”

Julianne can be reached at [email protected]