The state of California, home to astronomical crime rates and laws that defy all sanity and reason, is considering a tax credit of up to $500 for state residents who invest in security systems for their home, such as cameras, alarms, and fences. On its face, this surely seems innocent enough. And so many are supporting the measure, including law enforcement agencies. But a deeper look into this legislation reveals that once again, not all is as it seems—and citizens are quite possibly putting themselves in great danger.
Concerns arise from a growing trend across the nation to allow law enforcement agencies access to private security systems. In 2014, the San Jose city council voted unanimously in favor of creating a program in which private citizens and businesses can ‘opt-in’ to giving police access to their home security feeds. This would essentially create a database of people who choose to participate in the program. Privacy concerns were set aside by the council and police department, who claimed that officers and investigators would not have access to live feeds, but “people walking down the street now have to contend with a stronger possibility that they’re being watched by the authorities.”
Washington DC takes the concept one step further, offering to help pay for the systems if the business or individual then registers the cameras with the police department. Billed as part of an effort to make cities safer, the programs are a classic example of citizens being offered a chance at safety—if only they will give up more of their liberty.
The programs claim that if a crime occurs, police can check the database for citizens or businesses in the vicinity with registered security cameras and request footage from them. There is no mention, however, of what happens if a homeowner or business refuses to provide that footage—which brings up a question of constitutionality regarding the idea of forcing the homeowner to fork over that foootage.
In San Francisco, the terms of agreement for registration in the program says that “Any footage containing or related to criminal activity may be collected by law enforcement for use as evidence during any stage of a criminal proceeding.” It does not, however, specify any privacy protections for homeowners who may engage in activities within the privacy of their home that may incriminate them in something later—or if the government feels like using it.
Even aside from the massive privacy concerns, there are technical issues as well. Electronic Frontier Foundation drafted a letter to the sponsor of the California bill, drawing attention not only the fact that the law would not only assist in expanding the surveillance state but would also create a “new weakness for security.” Citing the October 2016 attack that took down a large portion of the internet by using ‘botnets’ made up of hacked private devices—including security cameras—EFF pointed out the logical conclusion that the more cameras there are, the more they will be used in cyber-attacks.
Perhaps even more disturbing, is many of these cameras, even government-run ones, are open to being viewed and even manipulated by anyone with a web browser. In 2015, more than 100 automated license plate recognition systems, or ALPR, were exposed online. Meanwhile, search engines such as Shodan allow anyone to view camera feeds, even if the owner doesn’t know the camera is currently broadcasting live.
EFF hopes that the bill will either be defeated or that the language regarding security system tax breaks will be removed. Even without the tax breaks, however, security camera registration has become the next big push by those who seek to infringe on privacy rights as payment for ‘security.’
And that does not sound like a good trade off to me.