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Privacy rights a concern with surveillance cameras

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Police and prosecutors love surveillance cameras but civil libertarians call them a good thing that can be misused.

Having the cameras in public places is clearly allowed, said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. The nation's highest courts have repeatedly approved their use.

But citizens still have privacy rights, and the courts say there are "reasonable" exceptions, he said.

"The question is: what is reasonable?"

The possibility of misuse should trouble citizens, said Sara Rose, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pittsburgh.

"Municipalities need to take into consideration that cameras can be used improperly," Rose said. "Some have the ability to zoom in through windows, for example, and focus on women. Is that right?"

Another concern, Rose said, deals with who has access to the camera footage and who gets to see it.

And, Burkoff asks, "How does someone know if a surveillance camera is being used improperly?"

Often, he said, that remains a secret until unearthed in another investigation.

Rose questions the cameras' effectiveness.

"There's not a lot of evidence of any reduction in crime," Rose said. Instead, she said the cameras simply push crime somewhere else.

There are more surveillance cameras per mile in England than anywhere else, according to Burkett.

"The good thing is, if there is a problem, there is some record of it for law enforcement," Burkett said.

"But the question is this: Do we want to live in a society like that• I don't think so."

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