Do Muni cameras infringe on privacy rights?

August 8, 2011 7:07:00 PM PDT
They've captured video of fights, accidents and robberies. Now the surveillance cameras aboard San Francisco's Muni buses and trains are slated for a major upgrade. However, not everyone is happy about it.

Surveillance video can be pivotal when police investigate crimes aboard San Francisco's trains and buses. But Muni admits the camera systems that capture these recordings are unreliable. In fact, just a couple of years ago, more than half of them were broken.

"Technology that's more than 10 years old -- most people who own their own digital cameras understand that a camera that was made 10 years ago is pretty antiquated," says Muni spokeswoman Kristen Holland.

But now Muni has received a $6.5 million federal grant to replace about half of those aging camera systems with new digital surveillance kits that send back images wirelessly in real time.

"By using wireless technology, we'll be able to get that information that much faster and be able to respond to those incidents more efficiently," says Holland.

San Francisco police say wireless surveillance allows officers to see what they're up against before they confront suspects on a bus, and gives them a chance to catch criminals by seeing where they get off the bus to make a run for it.

From a crime-fighting perspective, new surveillance cameras are a long overdue upgrade for Muni that really has no downside. But when you're talking about putting a wireless video transmitter on every single train and bus in the Muni system, there are some questions when it comes to privacy.

"In terms of the wireless transmission, is there encryption?" asks ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye. "What protocols are being put into place to prevent hacking?"

Lye worries hackers could use the system to stalk people. And so could government agencies, especially if years worth of video are stored on hard drives.

"The government does not have a right to stockpile personal information about us," she says.

Muni riders ABC7 talked to said they're not so concerned about privacy with the new system, but they balked at the price.


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