This small Pennsylvania city packed with hundreds of cameras is like a mini-surveillance state

Lancaster, pennsylvanniaWikimedia CommonsLancaster, Pennsylvania

One of the most heavily-surveilled cities in America is right in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where the Amish shun technology and drive around in horse and buggies instead of cars. 

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a city just shy of 60,000 people, has nearly 170 cameras watching day-in and day-out.

On the latest episode of Codebreaker, the podcast we produce with Marketplace, host Ben Johnson discusses whether or not the Lancaster cameras have changed behaviour or reduced crime over the years. Johnson also tries to figure out whether such surveillance is a saviour of modern society.

“It is abundantly clear that you are supposed to know that you’re being watched,” Johnson says. “What isn’t clear what the effect has been.”

Lancaster is not a dramatically crime-ridden city. The majority of crimes committed involve larceny or burglary. The city usually has fewer than 10 murders each year. But a spike in some crimes in early 2000 led a special commission to recommend the installation of a camera system in 2001, according to The Guardian.

“It’s a good witness,” Charlie Smithgall, the city’s former mayor, says of the cameras on the podcast.

Interestingly, the cameras are not monitored by the city’s police force. Instead, they are watched by a non-profit group called the Lancaster Safety Commission, which monitors and then alerts police if suspicious activity is witnessed. And with the cameras being used each day by police, the force has now come to rely on it to solve crimes.

“I can’t imagine us not having it now,” says Lt. Todd Umstead.

But some worry about privacy implications amid such mass surveillance. The cameras are located everywhere — not just in high-crime areas. And as social scientists point out, people act differently when they know they are being watched, even when the behaviour they may engage in is not illegal.

Listen to the full story in the episode below. And subscribe to Codebreaker on iTunes


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