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The Troubling Rise of Surveillance Cities

A new Houston law leverages funds from The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to require businesses to provide police access to private surveillance footage. ARPA, signed into law by President Biden in March, 2021, provided more than stimulus payments to the public. This law paved the way for Houston to become the first city to mandate surveillance in some industries.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the federally funded One Houston Plan, launched in February of this year, was recognized by the White House’s ARPA coordinator. It seems as though the feds are more than happy to provide taxpayer funds to empower cities to strip Americans of their privacy rights.

When Mayor Turner rolled out the One Houston Plan in February, 2022, he emphasized the city’s increase in violent crime since the pandemic, stating that the plan will “take our city back” to safety. Turner presented the plan as a blueprint for resolving the “public health crisis” of increased criminal activity plaguing his city.

But the plague of Houston isn’t the crime — it’s the widespread violations of privacy Turner markets as a solution. While these promises of peace may sound tantalizing now, they will ultimately cause severe consequences for individual rights.

Since the implementation of this plan, a citywide mandate requires certain businesses, such as nightclubs, bars, and convenience stores, to install security cameras. Businesses are then forced to keep the footage from these cameras for at least thirty days before deleting the data. Lastly, businesses must provide the footage to law enforcement within three days of a crime. Violators of this mandate incur a $500 fine.

Unfortunately, Houston is not alone in implementing such Big Brother mandates. San Francisco also wants access to business owned camera footage, without so much as issuing a warrant. In fact, San Francisco police seek access to real-time footage. Apparently, privacy concerns are of no consequence to San Francisco’s Mayor London Breed, who supports these measures despite public opposition.

Like Turner, Breed also seeks to label this overreach as security, citing “organized drug dealing” and “robberies” as justification for stripping residents of the peace of mind that comes with entering the public square without being tracked by the government. But public outrage has caused the Board of Supervisors’ Rule Committee to rethink the wisdom of the mayor’s proposed rule change. The Board remains split on the Mayor’s suggested change of the Administrative Code, hamstringing her efforts to bring a surveillance state to the city.

San Diego has also grappled with the surveillance issue. A now defunct program sought to expand their surveillance capacity by repurposing a years-old plan originally billed as a data-gathering plan to improve traffic. This involved the installation of over 3,000 cameras on street poles across the city that, until recently, were accessible by police.

Efforts to implement surveillance systems in cities like Houston, San Francisco, and San Diego represent a broader trend away from protecting privacy. Cities across the nation are beginning to rethink bans on facial recognition in the face of rising crime.

The legality of surveillance measures is debatable. The Supreme Court has not yet spoken on the extent to which continuous surveillance may violate the Fourth Amendment, placing San Francisco’s request for real-time footage at the edge of what may be constitutionally acceptable.

Houston’s new mandate creates a troubling relationship between private businesses and government agents. The implementation of the new law essentially deputizes business owners in service of state functions — a gross violation of the boundaries between public functions and private entities. Businesses unwilling to participate in the city’s surveillance scheme could be easily fined into bankruptcy.

In spite of these cities’ questionable attempts at a solution to the problem, it’s undeniable that these cities have experienced a surge of violent crime. However, the trade off between public safety and privacy proves a raw deal for the public. Once privacy is gone, there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Accepting heavily invasive surveillance practices from the government permanently undermines the agency of every individual, now and into perpetuity.

Not only that, these new policies won’t necessarily help. The underlying causes of crime in cities like San Francisco and San Diego are not tethered to surveillance. And in fact, many cities in America are able to maintain public safety without implementing invasive surveillance policies. Crime will not cease because of city wide surveillance schemes. It is possible that surveillance would lead to more efficient use of police resources, as Mayor Breed argues, but the potential for governmental abuse is not worth the tradeoff.

Cities and states across America should work to prevent surveillance systems from coming to their city. Businesses should not be required to collect data for the government, and states should work to prevent agencies from contracting with companies to undermine the privacy rights of the public.

High crime is a problem that must be solved and technology seems to offer easy solutions. But states and cities must prioritize individual rights to prevent the inevitable clash between public safety and personal privacy.

This op-ed originally appeared in Real Clear Policy