Tampa Gets Ready For Its Closeup

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SCOTT MARTIN/GETTY IMAGES

A video monitoring sign in the Ybor City district of Tampa

Americans go to great lengths for safety: We install elaborate security systems in our homes, anti-theft mechanisms on our cars and remind even our smallest children to "Stop, drop and roll" at the merest hint of fire.

But for some Americans, the quest for safety has taken a step too far — into the precarious realm of personal space and individual privacy. Case in point: Two weeks ago, Tampa police installed 36 surveillance cameras in Ybor City, a popular entertainment district. The cameras capture the faces of pedestrians and send those images back to a police-run computer database that houses up to 30,000 photographs of wanted felons and lost children. If a face in Ybor City comes up as a match in the sophisticated system, police are dispatched to the area to get a better look at the person.

Faces in the crowd

Not everyone is thrilled with Ybor City’s latest attraction. Last weekend, protesters gathered on the district’s streets wearing bandannas, gas masks and Groucho Marx-style glasses and moustaches — anything to hide their features and thwart the cameras. "Digitize this!" one of them shouted, thrusting a finger into the camera lens.

Tampa Police spokesman Joe Durkin says the idea behind the cameras, which were first introduced to Tampa during the week leading up to Super Bowl XXXV, is to make the police’s job a little bit easier and safer. The street cameras are not, Durkin emphasizes, taking and keeping videotape of people walking around. They’re simply snapping head shots and sending the images back to headquarters.

"This is very similar to having an officer standing on each corner with a book of mugshots. We’re just automating that process. If there is a match, we still have to go through the normal procedures — we don’t just arrest on the spot." The cameras have yet to result in any arrests or apprehensions.

An invasion of privacy?

That’s not much of a comfort to people like Evan Hendricks, the editor and publisher of Privacy Times, a 21-year-old newsletter based in Washington, D.C. Hendricks believes the cameras represent a serious invasion of privacy — and virtually limitless potential for abuse. "All of a sudden, they’ve created an entire database of people who are just walking around and who’ve done nothing wrong," says Hendricks. "There’s no restriction on how these cameras are used or what happens to the images. Once the technology is developed, it becomes susceptible to manipulation. Think about it: We have a whole industry dedicated to collecting information and selling it."

Back in Tampa, Durkin argues the technology, which is provided by a company called Visionics, is being used only after careful consideration by the police and their legal advisors. "We are looking specifically for wanted felons and missing children," he says. "If you don’t fall into one of those categories, there’d be no match for you in the computer system. The misconception is that everyone’s photo is taken and then kept on file. That’s not true. If there’s no match to your photo, it’s dropped immediately. That’s unlike convenience stores or ATM vestibules, both of which have videotaped patrons for years now."

"We take people’s concerns about privacy and fears of Big Brother watching very seriously," Durkin says. "Before we applied this system, we examined the situation very thoroughly, and sought legal advice to ensure we were in full compliance with the law."

The courts weigh in

The law appears to be on his side. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place. In other words, if you’re in your house, you can expect a certain degree of privacy under the law. If you step outside to get the paper, and start screaming obscenities or selling cocaine on your doorstep, that expectation of privacy disintegrates.

In Ybor City, of course, it’s not just hysterical drug dealers who are caught on camera, it’s Joe Shmo and his lovely wife and kids out for a stroll in the evening. And if the surveillance cameras snap a few shots, and none of the Shmo family faces sets off the photo database, it seems reasonable to wonder what good the cameras could possibly be doing — and to feel a vicarious sense of outrage on behalf of the entire Shmo family. But let’s imagine a different scenario: Say little Suzy Shmo is actually Jane Doe — whose frantic parents have been searching for their missing daughter for over a year. Suddenly, theoretical concerns over privacy don’t seem quite so pressing.

The debate over video surveillance is not new — but new technology may take it to a whole new level. Other high-traffic cities around the country, including Virginia Beach, are debating the idea of installing their own sidewalk surveillance cameras — and keeping a close eye on what happens in Ybor City.