RAND Analyst Testifies about Electronic Surveillance in the Nation's Capital

On March 22, 2002, RAND Senior Policy Analyst John Woodward testified on “Privacy vs. Security: Electronic Surveillance in the Nation’s Capital” (published as RAND report CT-194) before a hearing of the Subcommittee on the District of Columbia of the House Committee on Government Reform. The subcommittee convened the hearing in response to law enforcement's use of video surveillance at public areas in Washington, D.C. In his testimony, Woodward focused on reasons for and concerns about the use of such technology, the legal status quo with respect to such use, options for Congress to consider, and issues related to future use of electronic surveillance and other technologies.

Woodward recommended that Congress begin formulating more complete answers to questions about the use of the technology. As a start, these questions include:

1. Does electronic surveillance prevent crime, or does it merely shift crime to other locations?
2. How effectively does electronic surveillance detect crime?
3. How do citizens perceive the technology’s use? Do citizens favor the use of the technology?
4. How much of an aid is electronic surveillance in criminal investigations?
5. Does electronic surveillance enable public safety resources to be deployed more efficiently and effectively?
6. Does electronic surveillance counter terrorism?

Moreover, Congress should be particularly attentive to any solid evidence of actual harm caused by the technology -- for example, how often use of the technology leads to misidentification resulting in the arrest and conviction of innocent individuals. Woodward acknowledged that it is very hard to measure or to develop the “metrics” needed for these answers. More and better public policy research on the use of the technology and its security and privacy implications, as well as the effects of regulation, is needed.

Woodward concluded by noting that "We should be mindful of technologies that may invade our privacy, and it is wise to monitor their development to forestall potential abuses. We should, however, also ensure that perceived or potential threats to our privacy do not blind us to the positive uses of electronic surveillance. And rather than acting hastily, it might be better to first try to develop thorough answers to questions about the use of surveillance cameras, their impact on public safety, and the policy and social concerns they raise."