Editorial: Cities shouldn’t be so quick to surveil civilians

A recent editorial by the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram:

Elyria shouldn’t install surveillance cameras downtown.

The city hasn’t settled on doing so, but it is investigating a camera system for the area and is seeking a $190,000 state grant to help pay for a potential pilot project.

Elyria Mayor Whitfield told our reporter Kevin Martin last week that cameras could be part of a more comprehensive downtown security plan. He acknowledged that while downtown has traditionally been safe, surveillance cameras would mean additional security.

Elyria Fire Chief Joe Pronesti said he favored such a system because it would help with investigating accidents and fires as well as assisting in training.

Those are all noble aims, but what of the loss of privacy for civilians going about their day-to-day lives?

Even Whitfield admitted he had concerns about surveillance cameras.

“We’ve got to be careful around surveillance and making sure we’re using this for the right reasons,” Whitfield said. “That’s one reason why I’m not a big fan of pointing these cameras at already disadvantaged populations, or just surveilling poor people.”

Those are legitimate fears, and they apply equally to everyone who wanders in front of a government surveillance camera.

Among the arguments we’ve heard in favor of cameras or any number of other surveillance programs is that if someone hasn’t done anything wrong, they need not worry.

That’s not the case. Because cameras indiscriminately record people’s everyday activities, they can capture all manner of information including who folks interact with, which political meetings they attend, when they go to the doctor and so on.

All of those examples are perfectly legal, but are pieces of information that the government has no business knowing. Not only that, because the information is in the hands of the government, it is subject to public records laws and subpoenas.

Even if someone isn’t doing anything wrong, merely knowing that he or she is under surveillance has a way of changing behaviors.

We expressed similar reservations in 2020 when Wellington installed nine surveillance cameras to cover “every inch” of its downtown.

Moreover, installing cameras in downtown Elyria would add to the burgeoning surveillance apparatus the city is assembling.

City Council already approved a contract that would install 50 traffic-control cameras around the city. The cameras wouldn’t generate tickets, but 11 of them, located near entrance points to the city would be able to read license plates. Safety Service Director Kevin Brubaker told Martin Wednesday that the cameras haven’t gone up yet because the city is still waiting for the equipment to arrive.

Sooner or later, the system will be installed and the city will be able to track who’s coming and going from Elyria. The system will store its data for 60 days.

Avon Lake has taken a similar approach, installing four license-plate reading cameras on roads leading into the city. The point, as Avon Lake Police Lt. Sean Bockelman said last month, is to assist law enforcement, including helping to identify suspicious vehicles.

“It gives us both an investigative tool and a heads up whenever there is something that has entered our city,” Bockelman said.

That certainly sounds benign. The cops are just keeping an eye out for trouble.

But it isn’t just suspicious or stolen vehicles being checked out when a motorist drives into Avon Lake. It’s every vehicle, which puts in the hands of police a detailed record of the comings and goings of civilians.

None of this is to say that cameras don’t have a place in modern society. Security cameras at businesses, government facilities and even homes have a role to play. Police body cameras are an important tool for holding officers and those they interact with accountable. (Elyria has rightly, if belatedly, moved to equip its officers with such technology.)

The trick, however, is to use cameras, which grow more powerful by the year, in limited ways that protect both public safety and public privacy.

Blanket surveillance or license-plate reading cameras encircling a city are too broad of an approach.

Such systems might help with safety, but the price is diminished privacy.

— Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, May 12