Anti-eavesdropping laws could have a chilling effect on citizen engagement
A couple of days ago, I wrote about a city of Chicago initiative that deployed more than 3,000 video-surveillance cameras at rapid-transit stations. That’s a good thing, because subway crime appears to be on the rise. In September, the NBC affiliate in New York City reported that such crime in the Big Apple was up about 17% year over year. Earlier, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that subway crime in the Windy City was up 23% from January through May compared with the same period in 2010. Both reports cited larceny as the primary driver for the jump, as pickpockets increasingly are pilfering smartphones.
As I was doing the research for that column, I stumbled upon another recent Sun-Times story that I found fascinating. A Loyola University journalism professor captured cell-phone video of the arrest of a man who allegedly had jumped the turnstile at one of the city’s rapid-transit stations. Shortly thereafter, while still at the scene, a police officer reportedly demanded that the professor hand over his phone and then erased the arrest video. The rationale offered by the police department was that capturing the video violated an anti-eavesdropping law. The story didn’t clarify whether the law was a city ordinance or a state law.
The professor subsequently filed a complaint against the police department, citing the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of speech, and the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. He also said that his video captured no audio from the arrest, because he was about 40 feet away from the incident, so he believes that the eavesdropping rationale offered by the police is specious.
It will be interesting to see how this turns out, in the context of citizen engagement. Part of the reason that everyone is so excited about next-generation 911 is that its broadband capabilities will enable citizens to provide public safety with video and images from emergencies in real-time, which theoretically will aid response. That’s a good thing. But if such citizens believe that they will be hassled, or even arrested, when they do so because of anti-eavesdropping laws, they likely will choose the path of least resistance and avoid getting involved. That would be a bad thing.
This is a sticky problem. On the one hand, there is great danger that smart devices, if left unchecked, would be used to invade the privacy of ordinary citizens who aren’t doing anything illegal. On the other hand, if some accommodation isn’t reached, citizens will be far less likely to do their civic duty. This needs to be addressed, because if it isn’t, NG-911 will fall short of the promise predicted for it.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.