MARTIN: Thoughts on privacy and the city’s new surveillance system

Published 4:00 am Sunday, July 24, 2022

As The Vicksburg Post’s crime reporter, I rode with Vicksburg city officials to New Orleans on July 6 to attend a presentation on a new surveillance system the city was thinking of adopting. Since then, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to go forward with a contract that would have around 60 cameras installed around the city.

The system is run by Project New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that strives to give law enforcement cost-effective surveillance equipment to operate more effectively.

The technology is truly remarkable. The cameras record video at a little under 8K resolution. Bryan Lagarde is a criminologist and the Executive Director of Project NOLA and spoke to the city officials about the capabilities of the cameras. During a demonstration, he displayed some previously recorded footage of a suspect that was about a block away from the camera. Zooming in, he was able to show that the make and model of a firearm in the suspect’s waistband was clearly identifiable.

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Much of the system is automated, organizing information about the people it records and compiling it in a database. Law enforcement officers can then easily search the database for video footage of an individual based on the clothing they’re wearing, time, and location among other automatically generated tags. The advantage that gives to law enforcement is obvious. The system provides an incredible amount of information that can be easily searched and accessed, even if an officer is not on the scene at the time a crime is committed.

Rolling footage has pros and cons, however. Footage on one of the demonstration monitors of a woman standing in her driveway looking at her watch, unaware of being recorded, was a bit unnerving. The cameras are designed to be on and recording at all times.

The motivation for the city to adopt the camera system is to address major crimes like shootings and burglaries. The system would be extremely helpful in doing so.

Even still, adopting the cameras makes one wonder what they will be used for five or 10 years down the road. I can’t help but wonder if it will eventually be used to enforce lesser offenses.

I often see drivers around Vicksburg blowing through stop signs and speeding through neighborhoods. In those moments I find myself wishing for a ‘convenient cop.’ With the recorded video and automated tagging of license plates on vehicles, it seems prosecuting these violations with the new camera system would be fairly straightforward.

It’s easy to imagine that cameras would continue to be added if they are proven to be effective and costs continue to drop.

Digital camera technology has been evolving at a rapid pace for the past few decades, and there are no signs of it slowing down. Manufacturers continue to achieve greater megapixel counts and higher dynamic range at lower prices. The internet bandwidth required for storing the data will continue to become less expensive. Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) will mean more accuracy and higher volume in the automated collection of an individual’s whereabouts and identifying information. As a reporter, I often use an automated transcription service that can quickly produce a transcript from recorded audio with surprising accuracy.

These technological advancements have gradually blurred the line between our private and public lives. Conversations that would have been private in the past become effectively public records on social media. The collection of data is so automated and simple that it becomes almost an afterthought.

I like the idea of the Vicksburg Police Department having the resources to catch violent criminals more easily. But the fact that it is becoming more and more normal for our lives to be automatically recorded and cataloged, both with and without consent, is something of which we should be wary.