A recent investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle into a murder on the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) raises some interesting ethical questions. In the course of covering a shooting death on the system, Chronicle reporters learned that the majority of the surveillance cameras on the BART trains are dummies, that is, non-working cameras designed to act as decoys and deter crimes. Police were able to capture images of the alleged shooter entering and leaving the car where the shooting occurred but had no footage of the actual shooting. This lack of surveillance footage led to the discovery of the decoy cameras. Based on a walking survey of BART trains, reports estimate that as much as three quarters of the cameras in the cars were decoys.
The use of dummy cameras is not unusual in the security industry; I’ve used them myself in internal investigations. However, it is not a common practice in the transportation industry and BART is taking considerable heat over the decision not to install working cameras in all cars. The agency received over $200 million in State and federal security funds since 2011 and is being criticized for not seeking additional funds for camera installations. BART does intend to upgrade its fleet in 2017 and all the new cars will have functional cameras that can be viewed in real time.
The decision to install decoy cameras has obvious ethical implications but a more interesting issue is the role of the Chronicle in breaking this story. Revealing a major security flaw in a transportation system could lead to increased criminal activity by removing a deterrent to bad behavior. There are also concerns it could increase the system’s exposure to terrorist attack. On the other hand, exposing the use of decoys has resulted in BART considering installing more cameras in existing cars prior to the scheduled fleet replacement. There is also the argument made by BART that the layered approach to security works; they were able to identify the alleged gunman even without footage of the actually shooting. This suggests that revealing decoy cameras may reduce deterrence but would not greatly affect the system’s ability to investigate criminal activity.
It’s an interesting question in journalistic ethics. Which is the greater good: helping maintain a system that provides deterrence but little real protection or exposing the system in order to force reform, accepting that it might lead to harm in the short term?