The recent proposal to the Berkeley City Council that all those who own security cameras participate in a voluntary registry program raises some unsettling questions. While all citizens want to be safer and support the greatest possible efficiency in law enforcement, these are not the only considerations. In a time when the culture of surveillance allows for the collection of information on an immeasurable scale, the free individual must be willing to fight for every single bit of privacy.
Other cities, including Philadelphia, San Jose and Fremont, have created registries along these same lines. There, as here, the program seeks to eliminate waste and lost time when police search for evidence linking activity to crime. Councilmembers Susan Wengraf and Gordon Wozniak, who proposed this program at the meeting Tuesday, said surveillance footage is often cited as instrumental in homicide convictions. Their considerations, however, are narrowly focused on a fringe element of society. A complete proposal must address the possibilities the registry creates. The vast majority of the people whose images are captured on these cameras have not committed a homicide or any other crime. Their right to pass unrecorded is potentially at stake in measures like these. While establishments are required to post a notice that visitors are being filmed, what rules govern a private home’s camera that faces a public sidewalk? Berkeley citizens might have to accept that they are monitored at all times in all places. Berkeley Police Department could put their knowledge of the registry to use by conducting unconstitutional activities away from electronic eyes.
Such a registry would theoretically be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. If so, any person could submit a form and receive a list of all homes and establishments that have been registered as maintaining surveillance. This might influence criminals to target known unmonitored homes or businesses or to carve out security footage dead zones, where crime could be committed with greater impunity. Public access to information is not the enemy, but it must be considered in the context of such a registry.
We are not opposed to the creation of what is, after all, a voluntary registry. But the language describing such an undertaking is vague thus far. It must be determined whether those registered would be asked to waive their rights of self-incrimination or whether police would be able to bypass the need for a warrant or subpoena in order to obtain footage from registered devices. Live feed should not be supplied to law enforcement, as there can be no expectation of privacy or control of the footage in that circumstance.
Every encroachment on individual freedom is justified by an insistence on safety. We must consider whether expediting an already common practice of obtaining security footage is worth the potential surrender of any more liberty, privacy or rights. This matter has been referred to the city manager, where it will hopefully be refined in a thoughtful and complete manner. If the city of Berkeley creates this registry, let it do so with its eyes open.