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Privacy Villain of the Week Smile, You're on Federal Camera

Smile, You’re On Federal Camera

by JAMES PLUMMER

The federal government owns one-third of the land in the country and half of the land west of the Mississippi. And as far as the Beltway bureaucrats are concerned, we have "no reasonable expectation of privacy" on any of it. To prove they’re serious, they’ve begun to piece together a near-all-encompassing surveillance dragnet in the Washington, DC area. And according to a report recently issued by the General Accounting Office the federal agencies have failed to demonstrate their cameras do anything to stop evildoers and have been lax in responding to Congressional oversight concerns about the cameras’ effect on privacy.

The GAO report focused on the use of cameras by two agencies, the National Park Service and the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPDC) and the United States Park Police. MPDC told GAO that their cameras were geared to fight crime, particularly, but not solely, during demonstrations and whenever the Homeland declares CODE ORANGE. MPDC has 14 cameras of their own, but can access real-time video from other DC agencies including the public schools as well as "certain private entities." MPDC has a written set of regulations that restrict camera operators from focusing in on faces or print, but GAO also pointed out that there is no clear training regimen for the camera operators to make sure these restrictions are followed. MPDC has yet to develop any evidence that the camera systems actually reduce crime.

The United States Park Police also have cameras in and around the nation’s capital and they are far more secretive than MPDC about how, when and where they are used. Park Police claim that their cameras are chiefly to fight "terrorism" instead of "crime." The Park Police will not divulge where any of their cameras are, and has not yet issued final regulations on their use that were due a year ago. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, however has recently obtained the draft version of these regulations. Those regulations call for the spycams to tape everything they see "twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week" and leave open the door to use of face-recognition software and the use of images from the cameras in civil as well as criminal proceedings.

This "no reasonable expectation of privacy" policy vis-à-vis government surveillance on public lands is unfortunately not limited to the monuments inside the District. Cameras and microphones can turn up in the oddest places — for instance, one man in Nevada recently had a six carloads of a federal Joint Terrorism Task Force search his home after he pointed out military sensors on public land to some reporters. The number of cameras keep increasing despite GAO’s finding that neither MPDC nor USPP can prove the cameras actually decrease crime. GAO also points out the spycam operators in the UK haven’t proven such either — but they’re installing precrime software in the cameras there, so maybe that will "help". Indeed, "no reasonable expectation" is the lowest common denominator when it comes to privacy, especially when the information gathered could be dumped into the Pentagon’s TIA computers. The more land controlled by the federal government — from the middle of the forest to the municipal airport — the less choice citizens, consumers, tourists and travelers have to make among competing privacy tradeoffs. That is a true tragedy of the commons — and breeding ground for privacy villains.

JAMES PLUMMER writes the Privacy Villain of the Week and Privacy Hero of the Month colums for the National Consumer Coalition’s Privacy Group. He ca be reached at: jplummer@consumeralert.org.