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Say cheese for Atlanta's surveillance program

Plan to wire the city with video cameras should move cautiously

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Be sure your clothes match, your makeup's just right and your fly's zipped shut next time you go outside. You'll want to start looking good for Big Brother, whom City Hall welcomed to town this week.

On Monday, the Atlanta City Council OK'd a proposal to route as many as 500 public and private surveillance camera feeds, "from Piedmont Park to Underground Atlanta," into one high-tech center where monitors (should we call them "sentinels?") would be on the lookout for illegal acts and apparent crimes. The center would use state-of-the-art software to pick up on suspicious behavior and even identify from which direction gunshots are fired.

For crime victims, this federally funded project might sound like welcome news. And to be honest, in some cases, surveillance technology has proven to be helpful.

But let's not trick ourselves into thinking that such eyes in the sky will solve Atlanta's crime problem. Or forget that they will compromise our privacy.

"When you start centralizing video footage from one place, run by the government, you are opening up the possibility that everybody will be tracked and monitored, which is inconsistent with our oldest traditions of privacy," Jay Stanley, a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the AJC. The ACLU recently released a report warning that a similar system in Chicago, which has more than 10,000 cameras — some high-res enough to allow monitors to zoom in and read the text of a book — violates the public's privacy.

Stanley added that studies on the effectiveness of surveillance cameras is inconclusive, that the gizmos often just steer crime elsewhere and that the $2.6 million in federal grants to build the Atlanta surveillance center would be better spent on good old-fashioned police work.

For the most part, we're inclined to agree. What's more threatening for a hoodie-wearing criminal thinking about bashing a plate-glass window to swipe some blue jeans at 3 a.m.: a surveillance camera connected to a huge video bank where a sleepy monitor may or may not notice the break-in or a police officer patrolling a nearby street?

More needs to be revealed about the project before we agree to wire up the city. For instance, how does the technology differentiate between a criminal and someone who's simply nervous? How long would images be kept on file? What other kind of checks and balances would be in place to protect the public from a police department that doesn't have the best recent track record of respecting our civil liberties?

The city needs to be transparent about the hiring and training of monitors, as well as who has authority to access surveillance videos and which parts of town would receive the additional scrutiny.

Maybe we should install a camera inside the center so we can watch our watchers. Or how about inside Council members' offices? You get the picture.

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