I am always surprised when I look up while waiting for a traffic light and see cameras mounted at each corner, obviously tracking the traffic activity. I always wonder what they do with the information. Is there someone watching live? Will they use it to determine the cause of an accident? Are they reading license plates looking for a lawless driver?
What I do know is that surveillance cameras have become common place and most people are probably like me – we wonder about them and move on.
Still, they bug me. The proliferation of surveillance cameras is unnerving. The most egregious use, though, has been in our public school systems. School administrators contend that cameras make people feel “safe” and give parents the impression that the school is actively protecting their children. They also believe that they need the cameras to cut down on theft – you know, to catch students who steal IPods or cell phones. However, there is not one ounce of evidence that cameras are effective at reducing theft or crime and in Michigan schools, cameras are rightfully not allowed in locker rooms and bathrooms where most theft occurs in schools.
Yet in school after school, surveillance camera systems are being installed. Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School is fit with a surveillance system (at an $80,000 cost to taxpayers) despite a strong protest from students and concerned community members. Novi High School has an intricate surveillance system that is paid for through a voted bond. Interestingly, in Novi, teachers negotiated to ensure that the cameras could not be used on staff, either for monitoring or incidentally.
Despite this momentum, students in Birmingham, Mich., won an important victory recently and successfully deterred their schools from installing surveillance cameras throughout the buildings. As a former Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education member for ten years, I was proud of the students resolve and thoughtfulness when tackling this issue.
The students became concerned about the potential surveillance system months ago and quickly embarked on a fact finding mission. They built support with school flyers and meetings, a presence on Facebook, and with an on-line petition. They reached out to the media and communicated with school board members about their activities and findings.
Eventually, the students were allowed on the committee investigating the use of a surveillance system. And as part of the committee, the students visited schools using cameras and asked critical questions to discern the effectiveness of the cameras. The students spoke of their findings publicly at school board meetings, and ultimately the school board agreed that there was no compelling public safety issue at the schools that warranted a video surveillance system.
Their story was highlighted in a recent article, Privacy vs. Security: Are you prepared for the thorny issues surrounding student surveillance? by David Rapp for Scholastic Administrator Magazine.
For more information on rising use of public surveillance cameras systems in towns and cities across the United States, visit www.youarebeingwatched.us.
By Shelli Weisberg, ACLU of Michigan Legislative Director