Caution urged as residents asked to register surveillance cameras with police

  • (Electronic Frontier Foundation illustration -- Hugh D'Andrade) (Electronic Frontier Foundation illustration -- Hugh D'Andrade)

Staff Writer
Published: 8/16/2020 5:53:04 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — With police asking residents to register surveillance cameras on their property with town law enforcement, at least two experts are urging people to exercise caution before deciding to sign up.

Called the “Surveillance Camera Registry and Monitoring” (SCRAM) program, the initiative allows residents and businesses to voluntarily register the locations of their video surveillance systems with the South Hadley Police Department. Police do not have anytime access to registered cameras, but when a crime occurs, law enforcement will be able to identify nearby camera locations on the confidential registry, ask residents if they may have caught evidence on video at a specific date and time, and potentially request copies of video captured by the cameras.

“We can start working on the crime faster because we already have a resource where we can just directly call the resident and ask if they see anything on their cameras,” said Officer Kelsey Davey, who started the program at the department in early August.

But although SCRAM may appear innocuous on the outside, there are important privacy concerns to consider before willingly signing up, said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, which according to its website “works to ensure that new technology strengthens” civil liberties.

People who sign up for the program might find themselves “regretting that, if the police do, in fact, call on you to hand over information about your neighbor, or even about yourself, or someone who lives in your house,” Crockford said.

“It’s not voluntary, in other words, if the police get a warrant and force you to hand over that information.”

Those who sign up for SCRAM give police their name, address, email, telephone number and information about where surveillance cameras are located on their property, according to the program’s registration form. Participating residents also agree to the terms of use, which in part reads, “Any footage containing or related to criminal activity may be collected by the South Hadley Police Department for use as evidence during any stage of a criminal proceeding.”

Northampton criminal defense attorney Jesse Adams said in an email that agreeing to such terms may not be an issue for a specific instance, “but asking residents to give up their surveillance footage for possible future scenarios which are unknown at the time of signing on to the program isn’t advisable.”

“I appreciate that people want to help police investigate crime in their community, but I would caution against taking part in the program,” Adams said.

Adams said that while people are free to give footage that they have in a particular instance to the police after they request it for a specific investigation, people also have a right to refuse to hand over this information and make police get a court warrant for it.

“Giving the government a blanket waiver now to demand surveillance footage at an unknown point in the future, despite the fact the police can get it when they actually need it by consent or a warrant without the program, is something to think twice about,” Adams said.

Time saver

Davey said SCRAM has been in the works at the department for a few months, and that since its launch, about 15 to 20 community members have signed up. She said many community members have cameras on their property; South Hadley Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen said in an email that there has been a regional rash of car break-ins recently. Granby also has a police-run surveillance camera registry program.

Gundersen said in an email that the program allows for “efficiency of services” at the department — saving time that would otherwise be spent going door-to-door asking residents if they have a surveillance camera in the event of a crime.

Responding to arguments from critics that the police could force an unwilling registry participant to hand over information from their cameras, Gundersen noted that, “regardless if … the camera is registered or not via a voluntary camera registry program, any police agency with probable cause that that camera contains evidence of a crime, the police agency could apply to the court for a warrant to seize that evidence.”

“Do I think that that would be a frequent occurrence?” Gundersen asked. “Doubtful.”

Adams said that when police look to obtain a court warrant, they must file an affidavit as to why they believe there’s probable cause. The affidavit would have to prove to a judge that police believe a crime was caught on certain surveillance cameras, Adams said, noting that a registry could help verify that such cameras exist in a certain area.

The police may not “know you have a camera, necessarily, if you don’t tell them,” Crockford said.

Many modern surveillance cameras also capture audio in addition to video, Crockford said, which she said people should be aware of before signing up for SCRAM.

“The information could be a lot more revealing about your own life, about lives of people in your family or people in your immediate community,” she said.

Crockford also questioned the utility of surveillance cameras in solving crime after it occurs. In 2009, the BBC reported on an internal police report from London — a city with over a million CCTV cameras — which found that only one crime was solved for every 1,000 of those cameras in one year.

“Which is not a great rate of return,” Crockford said of the London report.

But Gundersen said the department sees value in SCRAM.

“We do need help from the public to investigate and solve crime, making offenders accountable, and provide victims of crime some resolution to the offense they suffered,” Gundersen said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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