Surf's up, and surveillance cams whir

To the dismay of privacy advocates, Los Angeles County is installing cameras along 72 miles of beach for safety.

Buff, tan, and Speedo-clad, Fernando had dreamed of this moment his whole life.

Ocean waves curled, then crashed into foam as he and his beloved embraced in the surf of the secluded cove. White gulls glided and cried plaintively overhead as Fernando's lips came closer to those of the girl whose heart he had sought since childhood.

Just then, their eyes caught the words of a sign nailed to the lifeguard chair nearby:

"For your protection, this area is under remote video surveillance by the L.A. County Fire Department lifeguard division."

This symphony-squelching, romance-killing scenario is fiction at the moment, but it could become reality over the coming year as Los Angeles County installs 27 panoramic cameras along 72 miles of the world's most well-known coastline.

The initiative is an outgrowth of a Clinton-era program aimed at using the Internet for the common good. According to the plan, the state's most populous county receives $557,000 to supplement staffing with remote cameras at the shoreline's most secluded locations.

Officials are licking their chops over inexpensively extending their ability to monitor beaches up and down the coast. Besides being able to see which beaches have the biggest crowds, the program is intended to allow scientists to track coastal erosion as well water diversions from coastal sewers that are supposed to empty street runoff from nearby communities. Meteorologists will also be able to watch coastal conditions without having to go to the beach.

But many citizens – including the not-so-buff and not-so-tan – say they resent the idea of government having an eye on the beach. Civil rights groups worry that the cameras, however well-intentioned, could change the nature of privacy itself in public places, especially those natural places where people go to be alone.

Technology has already paved the way for constant surveillance in other public places, but courts have not yet ruled definitively on the issue.

In the meantime, many people fear possible abuse will turn into the "Big Brother" that some say is intruding into too many areas of civic life.

"It's that feeling of anonymity that allows people to go out and enjoy themselves and not feel as if someone can zoom in on them," says Elizabeth Schroeder, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "There is always the possibility that these will be used in the wrong way, to ogle people, to make fun of them, to embarrass them."

County officials here counter that the video material – although Web-based – will be on an intra-department system that is accessible to only trained and authorized personnel. They also say that cameras will be kept out of focus to prevent people from being identified by name. And certain places like public restrooms, picnic spots, and nearby homes will be digitally masked from view.

But Ms. Schroeder and other civil libertarians are worried about two kinds of abuse – by those within government who are entrusted with the privileged video material, and by those outside government who could somehow gain access illegally.

"People have hacked into computers in the FBI and the CIA," says Schroeder. "If the County of L.A. Fire Department thinks its computers are going to be safer than theirs, I think they are dreaming."

Critics also cite instances in which cameras or other software intended to monitor people was instead used for voyeurism.

In Britain, for example, a recent study of municipalities that placed cameras on lampposts for crime prevention discovered that officials used the system for girl-watching. In Detroit, law enforcers were accused of using a database to stalk women, threaten motorists after traffic violations, and track estranged spouses.

Undaunted by such criticism, officials here are moving ahead. "The county has a legal obligation to lifeguard and safeguard these beaches and is liable if something goes wrong," says Joel Bellman, a spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who helped shepherd the program. He says there are many built-in protections to make abuse unlikely.

Caught in between are surfers like Cory Hunter. "I can see how some people are bothered by the Big Brother thing, if they really want their privacy," he says. But he recently had some kayaking friends blown out to sea who were saved only after an elaborate, and time-consuming, plea to officials via 911.

"To me, it's better to help out the people who are doing rescues. Helping out those who are trying to save lives is a bigger pro than con."

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