A first-of-its-kind law in Houston poses a major threat to privacy

By Julian Melendi and Evan Enzer
August 09, 2022
 
A first-of-its-kind law in Houston poses a major threat to privacy

Houston’s troubling steps toward becoming a surveillance city should serve as a warning to people around the United States. Houston’s new ordinance co-opts businesses to spy on neighborhoods and poses extreme threats to our freedom by requiring companies to install cameras on their property—at the businesses’ expense—without public oversight. A few other cities have already enacted laws requiring businesses to operate surveillance cameras in targeted situations. Those ordinances have their problems, but the immense breadth of Houston’s mandate makes it unique in the United States; it must not become a model for the rest of the country.

According to Houston’s city council, customers have no right to privacy in public, and business owners have no freedom to protect their property from government cooption. A new law requires convenience stores, “sexually oriented businesses,” clubs, and more to install cameras that constantly record video from the exterior of their buildings to at least the property line and to turn that footage over to the government without good reason or a warrant.

Across the country, cities have adopted similar schemes that infringe on the privacy rights of innocent people and our right to be left alone. For example, Detroit’s Project Green Light has enabled police to tap into cameras outside private businesses since 2016. Gary, Indiana’s “Operation Safe Zone” lets the police access private Ring security systems in real-time. A Milwaukee ordinance requires convenience stores to record the cash register, and bars in Chicago must record their entrances during extreme late-night hours. Other local laws require cameras in scrap yards, resale stores, retail parking lots, and gun shops, respectively. City residents get little in return for this encroachment into their everyday lives. Many studies have shown that video surveillance has little impact on crime.

But frankly, Houston’s plan is even worse than its predecessors because it combines the worst elements of each. First, it robs business owners of their choice by forcing them to surveil their patrons and neighborhoods. Many proprietors choose not to participate in camera programs when given the opportunity to do so. Notably, some eligible businesses did not join Project Green Light. But in Houston, businesses risk large fines if they do not comply. The law rips business decisions away from managers and hands them to the government.

 
 

Second, the ordinance makes Houston the first major city in the country to discriminately target swaths of sensitive businesses. From corner stores to clubs to lingerie shops, Houston requires proprietors to install cameras at their own expense to monitor not only the store but the “surrounding area” and mandates that the shops share the footage with police. The mission creep that concerned citizens have long warned about is now a reality. Houston is cherry-picking the worst municipal surveillance ordinances and mixing them into one horrible cocktail.

Think about all the places that Houston can surveil by co-opting convenience stores alone. Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States and includes thousands of small stores that sell groceries, gasoline, pharmaceuticals, snacks, or basic household goods. Some are downtown in business districts, and others are the de facto general store in outer suburbs. In short, these shops are everywhere. Under the new ordinance, these businesses must record their surroundings to provide footage to the police—enabling the government to invite itself into every corner of the city at any time.

These surveillance capabilities would be even worse in dense cities with fewer big-box stores. New York is a prime example. The city is built on the backs of small businesses that sell consumer goods. Need coffee, groceries, or cleaning supplies? The bodega on your block has them. While Houstonians do much of their shopping in warehouse-size superstores, it is common for New Yorkers to rarely visit a large retailer, instead relying on the corner market for most, if not all, of their daily needs. In New York, mandatory bodega cameras would record even more swaths of its residents’ everyday life. Houston’s model is bad and would be worse in cities around the country.

 

Now consider the sexually oriented businesses and nightclubs that Houston’s ordinance specifically targets. These vague terms could apply to dance clubs, art studios, bookstores, gay bars, and more. The new ordinance forces these businesses to collect, store, and share video of their clientele with the police. In Houston, anyone who walks into an adult bookstore will be recorded, anyone who enters a gay club will be caught on camera, and any couple that enters a romantic boutique will be identifiable.

Many of us would be creeped out by cameras that watch us anytime we go to the store, the bar, or spend time with friends. But that feeling goes so much deeper when sensitive topics like sex are involved. There’s no reason why clubs, adult bookstores, and similar sites would be more at risk for crime, but they are more vulnerable to the risk of being watched. The city should not be given a blank check to spy on its residents in deeply personal situations. Houston may not be able to outlaw these businesses, but with measures like these, it doesn’t have to. Cameras will scare customers off, dry business up, and photograph little more than foreclosure sales.

This privacy horror show that is Houston’s ordinance is only compounded by bad technology policy. Texas, and state governments around the country, use facial recognition technology without codified oversight. After collecting footage under the new ordinance, Houston officials could use this tech to identify every person in the video, including those who did nothing wrong.

 

Houston likely won’t be the last city to pass this sort of surveillance ordinance. Even privacy-focused San Francisco is moving in that direction. In a world where special interest groups jump at every opportunity to push invasive surveillance onto every aspect of life, the precedent set by Houston’s actions should raise alarm across the country. We must ensure that Houston’s ordinance remains the exception and not the rule.

Evan Enzer is a Houston resident and D.A.T.A. legal fellow at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). Julian Melendi is a political science student at Yale University and a research intern at STOP.

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