HKS Authors

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The use of video surveillance in public spaces--both by government agencies and by private citizens--has attracted considerable attention in recent years, particularly in light of rapid advances in face-recognition technology. But it has been difficult to systematically measure the prevalence and placement of cameras, hampering efforts to assess the implications of surveillance on privacy and public safety. Here we present a novel approach for estimating the spatial distribution of surveillance cameras: applying computer vision algorithms to large-scale street view image data. Specifically, we build a camera detection model and apply it to 1.6 million street view images sampled from 10 large U.S. cities and 6 other major cities around the world, with positive model detections verified by human experts. After adjusting for the estimated recall of our model, and accounting for the spatial coverage of our sampled images, we are able to estimate the density of surveillance cameras visible from the road. Across the 16 cities we consider, the estimated number of surveillance cameras per linear kilometer ranges from 0.1 (in Seattle) to 0.9 (in Seoul). In a detailed analysis of the 10 U.S. cities, we find that cameras are concentrated in commercial, industrial, and mixed zones, and in neighborhoods with higher shares of non-white residents---a pattern that persists even after adjusting for land use. These results help inform ongoing discussions on the use of surveillance technology, including its potential disparate impacts on communities of color.


Sheng, Hao, Keniel Yao, and Sharad Goel. "Surveilling Surveillance: Estimating the Prevalence of Surveillance Cameras with Street View Data." Proceedings of the 2021 AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics, and Society. Association for Computing Machinery, 2021, 221-230.