The Eyes of Austin are Upon You
By Era Sundar
Austin is on yet another top ten list, but this time it’s not about the best burger or easiest place to start a business. Men’s Health magazine named Austin as one of the most watched cities in America when it comes to surveillance cameras.
Cameras seem to be everywhere–-at fast food drive-through windows, in department stores, and at street intersections. But not all cameras are used for the same reasons.
Take TxDOT for example. The Texas Department of Transportation operates about 100 cameras on major freeways in Austin, used to help provide information about road closures and traffic delays. TxDOT spokesman John Hurt said they don’t record the camera feeds or use the information to enforce traffic laws.
“That’s not TxDOT’s business,” Hurt said. “We’re a transportation engineering agency. We’re not a law enforcement agency. We don’t use our cameras for law enforcement.”
While TxDOT isn’t in the business of enforcing laws, the Austin Police Department is. It monitors 27 cameras downtown and four in the Rundberg area. According to Officer Michael Schultheis with APD’s technology unit these cameras allow them to see farther into crowds during emergency situations and respond quickly to identify anyone who commits a violent crime. And he said there are safeguards to prevent the abuse of this powerful technology.
“If there’s a camera directly behind an apartment complex and if the operator of the camera wanted to look inside the window, it’s prevented by software,” Schultheis said. “We’ve actually blacked out that area. So no matter how you orient the camera, you can’t see into the private residence.”
Jim Harrington is the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. Despite the APD’s safeguards and good intentions, Harrington said people should be outraged about the increased surveillance.
“Part of the idea of civil liberties is you have to put your foot down in the beginning,” he said, “because once the government opens the door–however small the crack–it widens. And it’s always done in the name of public safety.”
Some civil rights advocates say the benefits of video surveillance are overrated. Kirsten Bokenkamp with the ACLU of Texas said people don’t want to feel like they’re being watched all the time.
“Constant video surveillance is a threat to privacy rights,” Bokenkamp said. “But furthermore, surveillance cameras have not been shown to reduce violent or drug-related crime. They’re also a large waste of resources that could be better spent on different forms of surveillance.”
Bokenkamp suggests going back to old-fashioned community policing such as foot patrols. But as the population in Austin grows, the number of surveillance cameras will likely propagate as well. Both the APD and TxDOT have already announced plans to increase the use of such cameras in the future.
The magazine ranks Austin the seventh most-watched city in the U.S. Others in Texas that made the list: Dallas at number six and Houston in second place, just after Washington, D.C.