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October 12, 2017

The ACLU of Virginia today sent a letter to the Virginia Beach City Council to express its opposition to further implementation of mass surveillance at the Virginia Beach oceanfront, in light of recent news report of the city's unsuccessful 3-year effort to install 88 new high-definition surveillance cameras at the Oceanfront. The ACLU of Virginia encouraged the city council revisit this program and terminate it as unsupported by evidence of its necessity and effectiveness that outweighs the risk to the privacy and liberty of Virginia Beach residents and visitors.

"The use of government operated or sanctioned video surveillance cameras in public spaces is troubling in a democratic society," stated the letter. Such practice does not make local communities any safer; is ripe for abuse; and, more importantly, could have a chilling effect on public life

The letter further explained why it is not a good idea for Virginia Beach, or any locality, to invest in mass surveillance in the name of public safety:

  1. Police, not cameras, fights crime: There is little to no evidence to support the effectiveness of surveillance cameras in reducing crimes. Instead of extending limited resources to the installation, operation, and maintenance of these invasive devices, the city should divert funds to community policing. "A police officer, not a camera, is what’s needed to keep Virginia Beach safer," wrote the letter.   
  2. Government surveillance cameras are susceptible to abuse: When law enforcement officers have unlimited access to a vast database, there is no guarantee that they would not use it beyond its orginal purposes. These video camera systems are operated by humans who bring to the job all their existing prejudices and biases and could easily be used for racial profiling. Last, cameras and stored data are susceptible to hackers.
  3. The use of these systems and the data they collect inevitably will be expanded: As we’ve seen with automatic license plate readers, surveillance technology has been used to build vast databases that enable law enforcement to know more than they need to know about the personal lives of law abiding Virginians, making all of us less free.
  4. Video surveillance will have a chilling effect on public life: The presence of surveillance cameras will bring about subtle but profound changes to the way people act and carry themselves in public. "When citizens are being watched by the authorities - or aware they might be watched at any time - they are more selfconscious and less free-wheeling," wrote the letter.

The ACLU of Virginia advised the City council to make it a requirement that any purchase or acquisition of surveillance technology (or military equipment) by any government agency in the city must be approved in advance by a vote by the Council. To that end, the ACLU of Virginia provided some guiding principles for community control of police surveillance that establish the rationale for such a requirement, as well as a draft model ordinance (see attached document below) as an example of a means to enact this requirement.

In addition, in order for the City to ensure that the rights of city residents and visitors are respected with respect to any mass surveilance system, the letter listed five helpful principles: 

  • Necessity: The City Council should require that the installation and use of mass surveillance technology, including camera systems, is justified empirically, ideally by an independent authority. Objectives and intended outcomes must be defined. 
  • Proportionality: Mass surveillance, including camera systems, must be shown to be appropriate for the problem it is intended to address. Technology should “respond to the established objectives, without going further.” Data should be protected and the length of time it is retained be clearly defined.
  • Transparency: City residents and visitors should know what the objectives of any City owned and installed mass surveillance system are, what its installation and operational costs are, the areas being surveyed, and what the results are. Reports should occur regularly so residents and the Council, as their elected representatives, can make informed decisions.
  • Accountability: Those in charge of City mass surveillance systems should be clearly identified and accountable to the public, whether the systems are run by the government or private firms.
  • Independent oversight: An external body should be charged with ensuring that systems respect the public’s rights and are achieving their stated objectives. Ideally City residents should have a voice in the oversight process.

In closing, the ACLU of Virginia requested the City Council to take appropriate action to revisit and reverse its decision to authorize purchase and installation of mass surveillance cameras at the Oceanfront. "In a democratic society two things are true," stated the letter. "One is that there is no liberty without privacy, particularly from government surveillance. The second is that, in a democracy, we should know more about government than government knows about us."

You can download and read the letter in the attached document below.