Municipalities around the state have been in courtrooms for years making legal arguments supporting the use of red-light cameras as a method of identifying and issuing citations to drivers who illegally run red lights, particularly at busy intersections. The cameras are able to provide virtually ironclad evidence that a vehicle has violated the law, although the basis of many legal arguments against them is that the cameras don’t necessarily show the driver of the vehicle. It’s a case where law enforcement has tracked down the crime, but not necessarily the violator.
Law enforcement and security agencies are fine-tuning their ability to identify violators, though, and many of us don’t realize just how closely our actions are being monitored and stored on video. Look up the next time you walk through one of the area’s many large retailers and you’ll see the small domes of surveillance cameras dotting the ceiling. We’re also being watched at the bank’s ATM machine, as we fill our gas tanks; maybe even as we walk down a busy street. It’s easy to accept these security cameras as sensible business practices, which they are, but they are far from the only times we’re being recorded.
According to some studies, the average American is caught on camera more than 200 times each day. That’s an astonishing figure to many of us. And the fact that we’re being taped isn’t even the most shocking fact. In many cases we are also having our actions stored away as computer files. Some estimates say those files total more than four billion hours of new video a week. A couple of filmmakers even recently completed a project called “Look,” a full-length movie that is weaved together as a series of clips taken from the point of view of security cameras.
Many states, including Texas, have laws that pertain to wiretaps, and how recorded audio messages and electronic communication may be used with and without the participants’ consent. Similar federal laws relate to audio recordings. Most states do not address the use of video images taken in public areas. According to Charlotte Parrack, the manager of Heartland Mall, Texas state laws prohibit surveillance cameras in changing areas or restrooms, but many other states do not have restrictions on where hidden surveillance equipment can be located.
Surveillance cameras have long been used for security purposes, but following the terrorist attacks of 9-11, cameras have become more and more common in public areas. Public streets now have cameras aimed at sidewalks to capture every pedestrian. Large public events even have the ability to video each person coming through the gates and almost instantly compare their image to a database of known criminals. That technology has been used at the Super Bowl as well as other events.
Most of us are able to go about our business, day-to-day, without giving much thought to the cameras that capture our moves and the lasting images they produce. We don’t think too much about the fact that we’re being filmed, and our actions are generally nothing that we’d be ashamed of if seen later. There are others among us, teenagers in particular, who seem to be unaware of or unconcerned about the potential long-term consequences of their actions as they mimic their favorite pop stars while seeking their own 15 minutes of fame. They’ve grown up watching undercover and “reality” videos as a form of entertainment — and probably think of any surveillance they might be subject to as just another forum to gain attention. Of course, there are others who are innocent victims of technological advances that have led to cameras the size of lapel pins.
According to comments made to Newsweek magazine, “Look” director Adam Rifkin is concerned that no one seems to be asking questions about the surveillance videotaping that’s taking place, how the images are being used and who has access to them. We’d all like to think that security tapes are being used to do just that — keep us safe and secure. One has only to check out You Tube or any of a host of Web sites to know that’s really not the case anymore. Rifkin’s correct that we should all be thinking more about recorded images — just don’t get distracted and do it as you’re driving through a red light.
Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.