Privacy: Technology

So How Do We Feel About These (Almost) All-Seeing Cameras?

By Wells Bennett
Wednesday, March 5, 2014, 4:00 PM

This question occurred to me last week, after I served as an alternate juror in a criminal trial here in D.C. Two men were charged with, and---after two days’ worth of evidence---found guilty of robbing another man. The case turned on testimony by the victim and some corroborating stuff, including extensive video footage from security cameras strewn throughout a particular D.C. metro station. The surveillance’s breadth struck me as Lawfare-relevant, the privacy-security dynamic being a frequent subject of debate around here.

The crime's victim credibly testified that, on a morning in late 2013, the two defendants had noticed him while traveling in the same metro train car.  Eventually he arrived at his chosen station and moved to leave the train. While riding the station’s escalator, the victim saw one defendant push past him; the other stayed a step behind.  This enabled the pair to block the victim from departing the station, after he reached the escalator’s end and the station’s exit point---where Defendant One confronted the man, grabbed him, rifled through his clothes and took what he found.  The duo then about-faced and traveled once more into the station, Defendant One having made off with the victim’s money and iPhone.  (When the victim protested, Defendant One threw keys and other property back as he descended the escalator.)  The victim told us that he summoned police, and assisted in identifying both suspects---who fled the station when approached, but were nevertheless apprehended less than a block away.

We also were presented with evidence consistent with the victim’s story. In particular, almost all of the foregoing was caught on tape and eventually trotted out in court, an inevitability considering the metro station’s 14-strong array of security cameras. We thus saw the victim exit the train car; we saw two guys quite closely resembling both defendants quicken their pace to follow him. We saw the victim begin to ascend the escalator; we saw the two men tailing him, not too far behind, and then moving up the escalator. And, a few minutes later, we saw the pair coming back down the escalator and talking to one another, a bright, shiny, and mobile-phone-like object in one of the men’s hands.

But despite having photographed the morning’s events so thoroughly, the monitors managed not to record one case-critical event: the robbery itself.  The encounter at the escalator’s summit was not captured on film at all, for no camera was mounted in or around the station’s entry and exit. And so it came to pass that the All-Seeing-Eyes came awfully close to living up to their namesake---but stopped just a little bit short.

What to make of that oddity?

There might or might not be a policy lesson buried somewhere in here; I don't know.  Given the outcome, law enforcement probably wouldn’t complain about almost-but-not-quite-omnipresent surveillance. Because video snooping extended really far (just not that far), it fell to the victim to tell his story to the jury. And when paired with significant corroboration, his testimony was enough to convict two people who, it seemed, indeed had tailed and robbed him. In this way, the State didn’t have to work that hard in order to make up for whatever the cameras missed. On the other hand, you can almost hear the Rudy Giulianis of the world, urging legislators to train new electronic eyes on points of ingress and egress. Such places present as many security risks as, say, the areas near the fare card machines; and not every crime victim will be in a position to testify, credibly, about events beyond the cameras’ coverage, as the victim did in this case.  (I don’t myself subscribe to this view, and sort of bristle at the idea of adding more cameras in places that are so widely monitored already. But I can easily imagine the idea being put forward.)

As for what did run through my head, while sitting in the courtroom:  the footage’s corroborative power was obvious.  And yet it still was pretty creepy to see so much public life replayed on surveillance tapes, over and over, soundlessly and in grainy images.  The cameras amply documented the actions of two suspected criminals, sure, and that's not to be discounted; but they also captured some altogether innocuous, everyday stuff. (Though prosecutors relied mostly on a heavily-edited exhibit, which culled key scenes from recorded material, jurors also had access to the master surveillance recordings taken by all 14 cameras that day. Simply previewing the other cameras' vantage points---as the prosecutor did, after the evidence was challenged by a defense lawyer---took considerable time.) Among many other things, we watched one woman stroll through the station with her small child; and another passerby, seemingly a construction worker, who walked close to the two suspects as they advanced towards the victim. That’s a lot of innocent conduct to sweep up and commit to the government’s long memory---perhaps too much, considering that the far-reaching security array didn’t wind up filming the Main Event.