Houston’s mandatory security camera law fuels surveillance concerns

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Many of the collaborations are voluntary; for example, Amazon’s Ring doorbell network routinely sends footage to law enforcement, sometimes even without the camera owner’s consent. Homeowners associations set up Flock licence plate scanners with the goal of giving law enforcement useable proof of package theft. The police are connected to live surveillance streams from nearby businesses that opt to participate by Detroit’s Project Greenlight.

Local law enforcement organisations have been eager to use privately owned security and surveillance technology for their own investigations since since it started to proliferate in US cities.

Highlights

  • As part of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s One Safe Houston initiative, the legislation went into effect in July and mandates that some businesses provide proper exterior lighting. The code states that the use of technology, including but not limited to video camera footage, aids in the identification and capture of suspects in violent crimes.

  • This link is strengthened by a Houston rule that was adopted in April. It calls for a number of neighbourhood businesses to continuously record video surveillance outside their buildings on behalf of the police and to turn those recordings over to them without a search warrant. It’s the first significant city to adopt such a broad law, which human rights activists have dubbed unlawful.

In light of post-pandemic worries about the city’s homicide rate, the bill was passed rather quietly. According to the Houston Chronicle, a considerably higher rate than in past years, 19 Houston children and teenagers under the age of 18 had been shot and murdered in Harris County by the end of May this year.

The Houston ordinance targets five types of local companies that the city considers to be more likely to engage in criminal activity: bars, nightclubs, “sexually oriented” enterprises, gaming establishments, and convenience stores. Business owners are responsible for paying for their own technology and services for 30-day data storage. One can be fined up to $500 per day for failing to install cameras that record continuously or for refusing to provide required film to authorities within 72 hours of their request.

“The city has been put in a position to deal with this surge of violent crime,” said council member Abbie Kamin, who supported the measure. “And at the same time, we have no support from the state in having meaningful [gun] reforms. We’re having to respond to something in an environment that is not only dangerous, but was foreseeable and preventable.”

The One Safe Houston project comprises a number of investments in programmes like mental health care, a programme to recycle guns, teams to respond to domestic violence, and more police overtime. Though civil liberties organisations like the ACLU of Texas claim that the rule may violate Houstonians’ constitutional safeguards against search and seizure, it is the requirement for surveillance cameras that has attracted their attention.

“The ordinance discards the Fourth Amendment by not expressly requiring police officers to obtain a warrant before getting access to a business’s surveillance footage,” said Savannah Kumar, a legal fellow at the Texas ACLU. “Warrants help to ensure that police action is supported by probable cause.” While business owners can assert their rights by demanding a warrant, the threat of a daily fine and the hassle of legal trouble is a major deterrent, Kumar said. Other critics argue that the legislation imposes unfair financial burdens on small company owners and cite studies that demonstrate that video cameras alone are ineffective as a tool for preventing crime. Al Jara, the owner of a bar, told Click2Houston, “To put that on a small business owner who is simply trying to make every penny count is completely unfair.

Although the ordinance became operative last month, Houston police have not said whether or how it has been put into practise. Sylvester Turner, the mayor, declined to give a statement. The approval of the legislation, according to Mike Knox, a Republican and the lone member of the Houston City Council to vote against it, demonstrates the pressure placed on police and mayors to demonstrate to their citizens that they are serious about public safety.

It “struck me as a knee-jerk response to a problem,” Knox said of the law. “It serves no useful purpose, except [for police] to stand around and pound their chest and say, ‘Oh, we’re doing something about crime.’ No, you’re documenting it.” Since 2008, Houston’s convenience stores have been subject to an ordinance mandating at least two indoor security cameras due to neighbouring criminal activity, which has long made them the focus of law enforcement investigation. The council, according to councilmember Kamin, is building on that law with new regulation to particularly target neighbourhoods where violent crime is concentrated.

Now that communities are trying to address growing worries about crime, some of those limitations are being removed or softened. Recently, Virginia added new exemptions to restrictions on the use of face recognition technology by municipal and college police, in force since 2021, while New Orleans partially overturned a prohibition it established in 2020. Several of these efforts allow law enforcement to rely more heavily on privately owned surveillance, which is typically cheaper to access and subject to less oversight. “You’re seeing this kind of workaround, trying to get around these surveillance ordinances by just going to private parties,” said Brian Hofer, a privacy advocate based in Oakland. “Because it’s harder to regulate the private parties.”

The ordinance in Houston is also a part of a nationwide trend in local regulations of surveillance technologies. Before the epidemic, a number of US towns took action to limit the use of such tools: In 2019, San Francisco approved historic laws that expanded transparency surrounding the procurement and use of surveillance technology by the government. Similar rules have been pursued in Seattle, Oakland, and San Diego. Even though a new legislation mandates that pubs and convenience stores monitor entrances and exits, considerably more crimes occur in homes and on roads.

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