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Thursday, Jul 10, 2014
Commentary

Protect public’s privacy by limiting access to community surveillance video


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The state Legislature should expand its protection of the public’s privacy by limiting access to the surveillance video recorded by many community boards around the state.

In our Ballantrae community of 969 homes in Pasco County, for example, our Community Development District board has installed motion-sensitive video surveillance cameras and recording devices on community property. They capture traffic that enters and exits our six villages. They record activities in and around our clubhouse, pools and park.

Videos are intended to provide investigators with leads on criminal or civil violations. Investigators request video only a few times each year. We do not otherwise review, download or archive that video, since 99 percent of it shows people engaged in lawful activity.

We learned the value of such video when events such as these occurred before we installed cameras:

♦ Residents of two villages reported a van with darkened windows driving slowly down our streets, with an occupant photographing children on our sidewalks and in their yards.

♦ Someone used bundles of firecrackers in an attempt to set two homes ablaze. A resident’s home surveillance system captured the arsonist’s vehicle in profile, but not the license plate.

♦ Late-night visitors to our park and clubhouse areas were responsible for loud parties, drug paraphernalia found the next day, plus theft and damage to community property.

We believe such instances show the need for authorities to have access to surveillance video. But that isn’t the same as making it available to the public. That’s where we believe surveillance video and the state’s records access statutes intersect at the law of unintended consequences.

State law says any video a CDD creates is a public record available to anyone upon request. Homeowner and condo associations are required to provide access to all records, including videos, but only to their homeowners (who are then free to share it with anyone they wish).

We support disclosure of videos of community board meetings, hearings and workshops. We think the original intent of laws mandating the release of videos was to ensure these were available to the public.

But the public release of surveillance video raises a host or privacy concerns, such as:

♦ Who needs access to our video showing residents engaged in lawful activities?

♦ Who needs us to provide video of children getting off school buses at intersections or people in swimwear at our pools?

♦ Who needs us to provide video showing what time you drive to work and how long it is before you return to your unoccupied home?

These examples demonstrate that surveillance video is a double-edged sword: It can be used as a shield to protect the law-abiding public, but it should not be wielded in violation of personal privacy.

I testified on this subject on behalf of the CDD board at the Jan. 22 public meeting of the Pasco County Legislative Delegation in Land O’ Lakes. We asked that the Legislature add an exemption to the public records laws. That exemption should limit access to community surveillance video to our community boards, law enforcement and the courts, plus private attorneys engaged in relevant legal proceedings. Anyone else should have to demonstrate a public interest or benefit in requesting the release of surveillance video.

Sen. John Legg, R-Port Richey, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, whose districts include Ballantrae, each responded at the hearing that they will co-sponsor legislation necessary to limit the public disclosure of surveillance video.

We urge readers and community boards throughout the Tampa region to contact their state legislators. Ask them to join in supporting such legislation to protect the public’s privacy by limiting access to community surveillance video.

Jim Flateau is chairman of the Ballantrae Community Development District in Land O’ Lakes. He can be reached at jimflateau@me.com.

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