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When Cameras Are Too Candid

By Jane Black It was Friday the 13th, and Madelyn Gorman Toogood was having a bad day. But when she left Kohl's department store in Mishwaka, Ind., her troubles had barely even begun. Toogood crossed the parking lot with her four-year-old daughter, Martha, and helped the child into a white Toyota SUV. Then, after checking to see who might be watching, the 25-year-old mother began to pummel Martha.

For 30 seconds, she pulled her daughter's hair and punched her in the head and face. The entire incident was caught on a surveillance tape -- which has since been played virtually nonstop on the 24-hour cable-news channels.

Even before the video hit the air, Toogood hit the road with Martha, getting as far as New Jersey before a warrant was issued for her arrest. On Sept. 21, Toogood returned to South Bend, Ind., to face both condemnation and charges of child battery -- and a possible three years in jail. Martha is in foster care.

NO INVASION. Coming as it does amid a nationwide debate over the merits of security vs. the right to privacy, the Toogood case illustrates how complicated the issue really is -- and how difficult it will be to preserve Americans' cherished freedoms while meeting the heightened challenge of keeping them safe.

Everyone agrees, of course, that in young Martha's case video surveillance worked for the greater good. Even the normally vocal privacy advocates can't find anything to complain about in the way events unfolded. After all,

Toogood's privacy wasn't invaded: Her SUV was parked on Kohl's property, which the store clearly had the right to monitor. More important, the surveillance exposed a heinous act. Even if she avoids jail and is reunited with her daughter, being exposed may have had some effect on Toogood.

"I'm mortified. It was the worst moment of my life," the shamed mother said on CBS's Early Show on Sept. 22 -- just one of many stops on her post-arrest media tour. She has said that she and her husband will take parenting classes. The case is a victory for child-welfare advocates, who hope that the media circus surrounding the incident will make other short-tempered parents think twice before raising their hands to their children.

WATCH EVERYBODY? At first glance, it would seem that the Toogood case is also a significant victory for Bush Administration officials and others who believe that more surveillance will help reduce crime and prevent terrorism. America both shuddered and cheered when Toogood was exposed, making little Martha the poster child for increased surveillance. So why not take it a step further and simply install cameras everywhere -- and, for good measure, tell everyone they're being watched?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple, and the value of video surveillance is debatable. For one thing, a pile of evidence shows that these cameras do little to deter crime. Britain has had 3 million of them in place since the mid-1980s. By some estimates, a Londoner is caught on film as many as 300 times per day. And yet, the results of a 1999 study commissioned by the British government and conducted by the Scottish Center for Criminology suggests that these cameras had little or no effect on crime.

Surveillance experts have come to similar conclusions in the U.S. In the mid-1990s, the Oakland (Calif.) police department promoted using surveillance cameras in public places. Sparing no expense, the department bought sophisticated devices capable of reading the fine print on a flyer from hundreds of yards away or recognizing a license plate or a face at a distance of more than a mile.

"A COLD LOOK." Yet in a 1997 report to Oakland's city council, Chief of Police Joseph Samuels Jr. wrote that though his department had hoped to be "...among the pioneers in the field of taped video camera surveillance" it ultimately found that "...there is no conclusive way to establish that the presence of video surveillance cameras resulted in the prevention or reduction of crime."

"The problem with taking a cold look at the claims made on behalf of surveillance cameras is that intuitively many people feel that cameras should be effective fighting crime," Johnny Barnes, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia, told a House of Representatives panel in March. "But feel-good is not the same thing as do-good."

Granted, even if surveillance doesn't deter crime, it can help uncover such behavior as Toogood's -- though it would be hard to pinpoint just how often that happens. The question is whether catching the occasional drug dealer or slap-happy mom justifies the cost and intrusion of putting cameras everywhere -- and recording millions of acts of everyday citizens that are no big deal.

JAYWALKERS, BEWARE. In the wake of September 11, Washington's judgment has been that it is justified. Yet Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel at the Washington (D.C.)-based advocacy group the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says cameras are being used not only to track terrorists but to catch jaywalkers.

Federal Appeals Court Judge J. Braxton Craven Jr. once wrote: "The right to be let alone is the only non-political protection of that vast array of human activities which, considered separately, may seem trivial but together make up what most individuals think of as freedom." Americans are coming dangerously close to seeing this right politicized -- and perhaps forfeited.

As the Toogood case demonstrates, sometimes such surveillance can be valuable. The evidence suggests, however, that most of the time it isn't. And it can be dangerous when used to intimidate and chill free speech, as it was in the 1960s when the FBI monitored citizens engaged in civil disobedience.

What the surveillance camera at Kohl's really showed is that balancing privacy and security is even harder to achieve than most of us imagined. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online. Follow her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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