“It’s being done all over the U.S. If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t have a problem with it.”
– City Manager Curt Davis
Under the lens: Central Park camera raises privacy questions
By BERNIE HORNICK
Johnstown, PA and county officials – if they wanted to – could tell whether a Central Park lunchgoer’s ham sandwich came with seeded or unseeded rye bread.
Or, at 50 paces, whether that new lipstick you’re wearing is Ruby Red or Rosy Glow.
A surveillance camera on the second floor of the Central Park Complex at Franklin and Locust streets allows them that option.
Officials say they aren’t interested in being nosy for nosiness’ sake. But they want the camera – which came as a surprise to parkgoers – to stay, nonetheless.
“Central Park is so important to downtown – with concerts, the Christmas Village,” City Manager Curt Davis said.
“If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t have a problem with it. This gives me another tool to monitor Central Park, it doesn’t cost me anything, and I’m all for it.”
Davis has a monitor in his City Hall office. He said he watches park goings-on periodically, for a few minutes at a time.
The park is Davis’ latest cause: He has put up signs alerting residents of littering fines, and a half-dozen people have been banned from the park for various offenses. None of those bans apparently was related to the use of the camera.
The camera was installed in April after the Integrated Emergency Operations Center – a multitiered government venture – moved from Broad Street to the downtown offices.
Because the camera has been around awhile, officials couldn’t immediately say what it cost. Ebensburg Borough Manager Dan Penatzer estimated that a camera there cost a few thousand dollars.
The lens can rotate _360 degrees and zoom in and out. It isn’t hooked up to a tape machine but can recall images taken earlier.
“If you had a name tag like this,” Davis said at City Hall, displaying his own, “we could read it.”
And privacy experts said that’s precisely the problem.
“Cameras cut down on uninhibited activity and autonomy,” said Robert Ellis Smith, an attorney and publisher of the Privacy Journal in Providence, R.I.
“For instance, this camera can zoom way in. What if you’re reading a newspaper, or reading a book. People in a park: They date, they hold hands, they kiss. What if they’re holding a political meeting?” he said.
Americans are entitled to certain privacy protections even in public, he said.
“And we want people to be relaxed in a park setting,” he said.
“While it is legal, I _think it’s very, very inappropriate.”
Ron Springer, county emergency management director, disagrees.
“We aren’t here to spy on people, nor do we intend to,” he said. “We’re not trying to be the eye in the sky on a covert mission.
“If I could put it in a nutshell, it’s just another means of building security, say, if we had a building lockdown (at Central Park Complex) in a 9/11-type situation,” Springer said.
He said the camera will be monitored only if there is a special need to do so. And it can’t see very well at night.
But Davis said the camera could be useful in prosecuting crime in the park. If police are promptly notified, the camera can be “rewound” hours later to display the incident.
According to Davis, the camera can be monitored from city Fire Chief Tony Kovacic’s office at Central Park Complex, from the sheriff’s department and from Davis’ office.
The camera isn’t the first in the city. Two years ago, the IEOC installed a camera atop the Inclined Plane to keep a watch over downtown during Thunder in the Valley. But trees obscured the view of the park.
Outdoor cameras also keep an eye on Washington Street in front of the Penn Traffic Building, home of U.S. District Court and the National Drug Intelligence Center. And lenses out back can film up into Prospect Hill. Some city parking garages have cameras hooked to VCRs.
Davis said vandalism at the Lincoln Street Garage was prosecuted through videotape. City police declined to comment.
“It’s being done all over the U.S. and in Pittsburgh, and it’s appropriate” in areas that require monitoring, Davis said. He also noted the trend toward light-pole cameras that catch drivers running red lights.
Kovacic, a member of the IEOC, agrees.
“It gives us an opportunity to cover a lot of ground in terms of public safety,” he said. For instance, Kovacic said, the camera would have been useful had it been operating when Chelsea _Clinton spoke at the park.
Smith, though, said such unregulated surveillance is disturbing.
“It is amazing in the United States, these cameras are just sprouting up without any regulation,” he said.
And he questioned whether, in this case, such cameras serve an appropriate emergency management purpose.
“It sounds like they_just had the money and decided they’d put it up,” he said. “More regulation is needed.”