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Cameras are everywhere. Do they make us any safer?

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  • Alex Ossola
By Alex Ossola

Membership editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For more on drones, check out the fifth episode of our Should This Exist? podcast, which debates how emerging technologies will impact humanity.

On the phone. At work. While driving. Americans are under near-constant surveillance, no matter what they’re doing. Each new technological innovation ushers in new ways for companies, governments, or individuals to monitor people. And people, when they know about or suspect surveillance, are generally OK with it, because they’ve been told it will make them safer by deterring crime.

That’s the argument Americans have been served for more than a century. In practice, though, the relationship between surveillance and public safety is much more complicated.

The British Security Industry Authority estimated (pdf) that, in 2013, the country had one closed-circuit TV camera for every 14 people, making the British population one of the most surveilled in the world. Cameras are perched on lampposts, in parking garages, and near the entrance to the London Underground transit system. A 2009 internal London police report noted that investigators solved just one crime for every 1,000 cameras. But in 2010, camera footage played a role in 841 trials in the city’s Wandsworth district, a spokesman for Wandsworth Council told ABC News.

Collecting so much information, security experts have argued, makes it hard for police to discover what’s relevant and stop crime. Yet in the process, governments are vacuuming up huge amounts of information that violate citizen privacy.

Does surveillance make us safer?

Police departments don’t necessarily suffer when they lose the ability to monitor citizens with cameras. For years, police around the UK poured money into CCTV setups. As budgets tightened, some cameras were switched off. In places such as the large Dyfed-Powys district in Wales and in Cornwall, police found no dramatic increase in crime, the BBC reports.

Questions about efficacy are not stopping other cities from ramping up their use of video surveillance. Police in Chicago and New York have installed cameras throughout their cities. In Seattle, however, outcry over privacy concerns forced police to take down many cameras. Cities throughout China take surveillance to another level, combining ubiquitous cameras with facial recognition and artificial intelligence to give each citizen a social credit score. In some places, the system is used to subjugate minority groups.

Video-based police surveillance generally has been limited to fixed cameras. Now, that’s all starting to change.

Drones are the next big thing

Police drones have already been approved in the state of North Dakota, where they can carry pepper spray and tasers in addition to cameras. Last year, the city of Louisville, Kentucky applied to be one of the first in the US to use autonomous drones to respond to the sound of gunshots.

Since pretty much anyone can own a drone, pretty much anyone can surveil. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has estimated that there will be 30,000 commercial drones in the sky by 2020, the Washington Times reported. Many will be equipped with cameras that look down into private property.

Chris Anderson, former editor in chief of Wired and founder of the DIY drone company 3DR, knows it’s creepy to have drones constantly watching, but there’s not much Americans can legally do about it. “From a pure legal perspective, you don’t own the space over your head. You have actually no right. In the United States, we operate on what’s called reasonable expectation of privacy. And you have no reasonable expectation of privacy outside,” Anderson said in an episode of the podcast Should This Exist?

As drones become more of a nuisance—shutting down airports, getting a little too close to the White House—legislators have begun to take a closer look. As of 2016, 24 states had passed laws that pertain to privacy and drones. The FAA, which has rules about registering drones and who can operate them, places no restriction on surveillance.

Should This Exist? is a podcast, hosted by Caterina Fake, that debates how emerging technologies will impact humanity. Listen here for a more in-depth conversation on evaluating the human side of technology.

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