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Atlanta Police tap into Big Brother cameras | News

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Atlanta Police tap into Big Brother cameras
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Atlanta Police tap into Big Brother cameras

ATLANTA -- Smile. If you're in Atlanta, in public places, you're probably on camera, and police are watching you.

It's the same in many other Metro Atlanta cities, as well, which are relying on surveillance cameras more and more to try to prevent crime and catch criminals.

Now critics are questioning Atlanta's decision last week to spend $2.6 million in federal grants to expand the city's surveillance camera network to an unprecedented level.

What Atlanta is doing is entering into contracts with private businesses that have their own surveillance cameras.

As a result, the city is beginning to network thousands of private and public surveillance cameras, with live views of practically everywhere, to monitor and record live video at the city's 911 Center.

Debbie Seagraves of ACLU Georgia does not trust the government to protect the privacy of innocent citizens.  She quickly dismisses the old argument that says, "As long as I'm not doing anything wrong, I have nothing to worry about from the government watching me all the time on all those surveillance cameras."

"I just have to say that when you give someone, some entity, the power to watch you at every moment, if they want to see something wrong, they will," Seagraves said. "And that's the danger... I'll say once again, wrong is often in the eye of the beholder."

Seagraves said cameras don't reduce crime; criminals just move to less affluent areas where there are no cameras.

But Col. Wayne Mock of the private police force "Midtown Blue" disagrees. Mock said that Midtown Blue, along with Atlantic Station, just signed "memos of understanding" with the City of Atlanta, making them among the first private security organizations to allow Atlanta Police to tap into their dozens of live cameras 24 hours a day.

Midtown Blue has had its cameras in place throughout Midtown Atlanta since 2005. Mock said they DO reduce crime.

"There's a substantial crime reduction in Midtown, and there will be a substantial crime reduction all over Atlanta with Chief Turner's program taking cameras all over the City of Atlanta and putting them in the 911 Center... Cameras, what do they do? They're actually police officers. That camera is actually a police officer sitting on the utility pole. Now we have them mounted in the street, on traffic poles. It's actually a police officer there, it's actually his eyes recording."

Col. Mock believes the more cameras that there are -- recording everything going on in public -- the fewer places criminals will have to escape in order to commit crime out of camera range.

Here are excerpts from 11Alive's separate interviews with Seagraves and with Mock on Wednesday.

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Debbie Seagraves
Executive Director
ACLU Georgia

I'm not sure what the safeguards are in these "memos of understanding" with private businesses. Who keeps the data? What are the limits on how it can be used? How long is it kept? Who has access to it?

We, I'm afraid, have become victims of surveillance creep. Loss-of-privacy creep. It's coming upon us a little at a time and occasionally there's a bump in the road where people are a little upset about being X-rayed to the point of appearing nude in an airport. But we've become so used to the idea that government can see us anywhere at any time. I don't know when we got comfortable with it. But, apparently, it had something to do with a time when we became afraid of terrorists. And the surveillance did increase.

What's happening is that our ability to surveil our citizenry is quickly outstripping our ethical safeguards about what we do with that information and with that technology. There have been reported incidents in other cities of police officers using surveillance data to stalk ex-wives, girlfriends, to stalk people who have visited a gay bar, to go back and attempt blackmail. There have been all kinds of things that have happened with these kind of surveillance cameras. I'm not saying those things are going to happen in Atlanta. What I'm saying is that just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean we should do something.

I don't believe that the City of Atlanta or anyone else can show us evidence that this [expanding of the surveillance camera network] is a better way to spend money than hiring another cop, and giving the cops on the beat better equipment and better access to what they need to actually do community policing. In fact there's a lot of evidence that that is exactly the best way to spend money, to invest in your policemen on the beat, in training and in equipment.

[People always say, "If I'm not doing anything wrong, I've got nothing to worry about."]

I just have to say that when you give someone, some entity, the power to watch you at every moment, if they want to see something wrong, they will. And that's the danger. Will you get to the place where, with these high definition cameras... that you have to be careful about what you read in public, how you dress in public, how you interact with other people? Do you want to be a person who has to look over your shoulder and think every moment about every word you say and everything you do? I'll say once again, wrong is often in the eye of the beholder.

So now what you're talking about is private entities gathering information [with their own surveillance cameras], and now they are using it and sharing it in concert with a governmental entity that has an enforcement power. So I'm not saying they shouldn't do it, I'm saying we don't have the proper safeguards in place to ensure that it isn't misused and abused. You know, there's no guarantee that you're going to be safe from someone [monitoring the videos] who just decides they don't like how you dress, they don't like what you did, you look suspicious, you talked on the street with somebody that was under surveillance. We don't have the proper safeguards in place, and our technology is outstripping our ethics.

There's also no evidence that it cuts down on crime within a city... it moves it to less affluent areas. Which is why we should consider whether or not it's a better use of our dollars to put more cops on the street in areas where people need them.

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Col. Wayne Mock
Public Safety Manager
Midtown Blue

Well, they've been a major factor in crime reduction.

We signed an MOU [memo of understanding] with Atlanta, and we're real excited, because our cameras, our 48 cameras, and the Atlantic Station cameras that are under North American Properties... are among the first ones in [Atlanta's] 911 Center. We're excited about that. That gives the operators and their new system the ability to monitor -- to dispatch officers and monitor locations at the same time. It's a great entity. It's going to [result in] a major crime reduction, a major public safety factor.

I'm not sure there's an issue [of government intrusion] there, at all. We've talked about Big Brother before. We video, we're on the public right of way, we're set totally toward your public safety as a citizen. We don't listen, we don't monitor, we don't do any audio whatsoever; everything we do is video. We record, look and the dispatcher constantly looks for your safety... So it's a win-win situation for everybody.

People know that they're being monitored, they're being viewed... The fact that you know that the camera's there, and the fact that you know that Atlanta police officers out of the Midtown Blue operation are going to respond within two to three minutes of this issue, [makes everyone safer].

Some of these cameras catch as many as 16 blocks... You virtually, probably, will not get out of range. You can try to get out of range, but if you commit it, you're going to be caught.

There's a substantial crime reduction in Midtown, and there will be a substantial crime reduction all over Atlanta with Chief Turner's program taking cameras all over the City of Atlanta, and putting them in the 911 Center.

You connect a volley of cameras together and you just increase your chance of gathering evidence that judges seem to love in municipal court.

Atlantic Station will be tied in... all the businesses, the buildings in Downtown, Midtown, that will be tied in, Westside Village, College Park... Buckhead tied in with cameras, you'll have Sandy Springs tied in with cameras, you jump to Dunwoody, you jump to Lilburn, you're jumping, you're jumping, you're jumping. And you just create a safer environment for everybody together in Metro Atlanta.

It still takes a good law enforcement officer to respond, and respond to it. Cameras, what do they do? They're actually police officers. That camera is actually a police officer sitting on the utility pole... It's actually a police officer there, it's actually his eyes recording.

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