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Editorial: Let the people watch the cameras

Some Evanstonians have been creeped out by plans to install city-owned surveillance cameras on downtown streets.

Some Evanstonians have been creeped out by plans to install city-owned surveillance cameras on downtown streets.

A cart-full of cameras displayed outside the City Council Chamber last month.

Some folks fear that visible cameras will hurt business by sending a silent message to visitors that downtown isn’t safe.

Others believe the cameras are an invasion of personal privacy and would let police start compiling a dossier of every resident’s every move.

Given that there already are dozens of privately-owned surveillance cameras scanning downtown streets and buildings, we think these concerns are overblown.

The increasing use of surveillance cameras hasn’t turned America into a police state and there’s no evidence existing cameras downtown have scared off shoppers.

But we do believe that there is a difference between privately-owned and publicly-funded cameras.

When our tax dollars pay for the cameras, we should get to see what the cameras see.

Fortunately, modern internet-based camera systems make that easily achievable. There is no real barrier to having the surveillance camera images made available to the public on the city’s website in a form that would let anybody embed the live video on other websites as well.

The core reason for doing this is government transparency. People should be able to see what the police are able to see of their activities.

But there could be ancillary benefits as well.

Why shouldn’t the Chamber of Commerce or Downtown Evanston be able to include a live view of Fountain Square or the theater district on their websites to show just how attractive and lively downtown Evanston is?

Wouldn’t it sometimes help you to have a webcam view of weather and traffic conditions downtown right from your computer before you head out for the day?

We’re not absolutely convinced that cameras are the best use of scarce government resources, but since the city has won federal grants to pay for them, we think they should be implemented in a way that promotes government transparency and openness.

Other views on the cameras

Crime cameras another useful tool for police (Evanston Review)

City should have sought community input on camera decision (Evanston RoundTable)

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