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How Much Surveillance Can We Tolerate?

Cheap cameras, less privacy?

Bob Kovacs

A new business moved into a building not far from the editorial office of Government Video. At the time it moved in, the company also built a new parking lot.

Driving by that lot today, I can see multiple security cameras on light poles, placed in locations to cover the parking lot. The building itself also certainly has surveillance cameras, which are probably not easy to spot from my moving car.

This is in a suburban location where security is perhaps not quite the obsession it is in downtown Washington near all the famous monuments, memorials and museums. There are lots of reasons why surveillance cameras are blossoming everywhere, and it’s not necessarily because we are breaking more laws.

A few weeks ago, I was mowing the lawn at my house in the mountains and spotted something curious in the woods on my property. I saw what looked like a wild turkey, but as I approached, it turned out that it was a decoy set up by someone as part of a camera trap.

In other words, someone set up this decoy in the woods to lure wild turkeys and capture them on camera. This is at a house on 11 acres, mostly forest, and it’s a mile from a paved road.

The bottom line is that when cameras become inexpensive and simple enough, they will proliferate… everywhere. It used to be that the only way to record video was on finicky, cumbersome and power-hungry tape recorders. However, that seems like ancient times in this era of tiny cameras that can run for weeks on a couple of AA batteries and record decent-quality video for days on 32 GB micro-SD cards that are as big (and as thick) as your pinky fingernail.

Sense of Security

What does this mean for our sense of security? What does it mean for our sense of privacy?

I can tell you that I was none too happy to learn that my neighbor had―without my permission or even mentioning it―set up a camera trap in my back yard. Once he saw me on-camera, he came over and somewhat sheepishly said that it was his decoy and camera. We’re neighbors and it’s in all our best interests to get along and not make life miserable for each other, so I didn’t make a big deal about it.

What if his interest was in spying on his neighbors and not just on the local wildlife, however? What might be a little unsettling but not unreasonable in a suburban business’ parking lot is clearly crossing the line when it comes to one private citizen recording his neighbors using a camera set up on the neighbors’ property.

As surveillance cameras become more capable, easier to manage and less expensive, expect that they will eventually be everywhere… including in some places that they have no right to be. This trend has implications not just for us as average citizens but as government facility managers. What is the appropriate use of video technology here? When does such surveillance become intrusive? To what extent should government video professionals be tasked with worrying about privacy concerns on or off our properties?

Are we being sufficiently trained in these questions? How do video drones change this debate further? What other questions should we be asking? I will post this editorial on, at which point you will be able to leave comments. If you’d like to write a one-page commentary on the subject, send me an e-mail to discuss.