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The King County Library System's decision to get rid of all its surveillance cameras in the wake of becoming an arm of law enforcement gets

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King County Libraries are Getting Rid of Their Surveillance Cameras. Privacy Coup or Security Catastrophe?

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The King County Library System's decision to get rid of all its surveillance cameras in the wake of becoming an arm of law enforcement gets to a Core Issue of Our Times: privacy versus security.

The precipitating incident occurred in March in the parking lot of the Woodmont Library in Des Moines, when a homeless man approached an elderly library patron, asked him for money, then, when the patron took out his wallet, snatched it from him and smacked him around, causing minor injuries. The library had video of the incident, but refused to hand it over to the cops until served with a court order. The cops got the order, and the video resulted in the assailant's arrest. Then all the county libraries got rid of their cameras--all 46 of them in 10 libraries.

As Bill Ptacek, the County library director, told the Seattle Times yesterday, "We believe intellectual freedom is the important part, so we got out of the camera business."

More than most, librarians take privacy seriously. As you may recall, they were not shy about not being pleased with provisions of the PATRIOT Act encroaching on the library-going freedoms of their fellow citizens.

And while the American Library Association doesn't keep data on how many libraries use security cameras, or on how many have removed such cameras after feeling icky about sharing their tapes with the cops, it does advise libraries on how to balance the right to privacy with the need for security:

When a library considers installing surveillance equipment, the administrative necessity of doing so must be weighed against the fact that most of the activity being recorded is innocent and harmless ...

If the library decides surveillance is necessary, it is essential for the library to develop and enforce strong policies protecting patron privacy and confidentiality appropriate to managing the equipment, including routine destruction of the tapes in the briefest amount of time possible, or as soon as permitted by law.

Obviously, in this case, King County felt the only way to protect privacy was to get rid of the cameras altogether. Ironically, the cameras were installed five years ago at the behest of librarians complaining of petty theft and vandalism.

As to whether the great camera purge of 2011 is good or bad, we'll split the difference. Score one point for getting to read what you want without Big Brother knowing about it. And score one point for aspiring assaulters of aged gentlemen in library parking lots.

Oh, and call it a wash for those exhibitionists at the internet terminals. It'll be harder to catch them, but their potential audience will be greatly diminished.

 
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