Smile Madisonians: You’re on not-so-candid government cameras


By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Beware all you prostitutes, pimps and drug dealers: Madison is watching you.

You too, jaywalking suburban mom with children in tow.

WHO’S WATCHING YOU?: The city of Madison has installed nearly 40 cameras throughout the city for the public to monitor traffic in real time, but government agencies also are viewing the footage.

City staff has set up close to 40 cameras throughout Madison for the public to monitor traffic in real time, but the footage is also being viewed by several city agencies, including the police department.

And that’s not counting the hundreds of other cameras installed in the State Street area, the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, various parking garages and Madison Metro buses and transfer stations — all of which are used by law enforcement, according to Madison Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain.

“It’s the way the world has gone, so whether people like it or not, it’s here,” DeSpain told Wisconsin Reporter. “And I would say we’re going to see more cameras.”

That doesn’t sit too well with American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty, who’s deeply concerned the prevalent use of high tech surveillance is compromising citizens’ privacy.

Most of the traffic cameras, much like the ones along State Street, have the ability to move and zoom in on pedestrians and cars, according to Paul Kronberger, the city’s chief information officer.

“There may not be a problem with individual cameras and individual locations, but when you think about it in aggregate, it really has destroyed your privacy,” Ahmuty said. “And personal autonomy is something to be valued.”

Adam Tobias explains why somebody is watching you in downtown Madison.

Alderman Scott Resnick argues that people traveling in front of the cameras shouldn’t expect any privacy because the equipment is only focused in on public locations.

Because the city has a detailed policy outlining how the cameras can be operated, Resnick said the footage is only collected when there is a “serious incident” or city services can be improved.

Still, Madison attorney Jeff Scott Olson isn’t resting easy.

“The more technology you have, the more opportunity there is for it to be used improperly,” said Olson, who specializes in civil rights and constitutional litigation.

Nevertheless, DeSpain said the cameras are a valuable tool in collecting evidence, locating suspects and preventing crimes.

But London, which is considered to be one of the most spied-on cities in the world, hasn’t seen any significant changes in its crime rate since closed-circuit television cameras were installed more extensively in the mid 1980s, a report by the civil rights group Big Brother Watch has found.

The report also suggests the money would be better spent on hiring additional police officers.

Federal, state and local taxpayers have shelled out approximately $758,000 on the traffic and Madison Metro cameras.

“There’s lots of cameras out there,” DeSpain said.

And there likely will be even more.

The city is looking to place a few additional traffic cameras in the vicinity of John Nolan Drive to better monitor the new location of the annual Rhythm and Booms fireworks show at Lake Monona, according to Scott Langer, assistant city traffic engineer.

Contact Adam Tobias at or follow him on Twitter @Scoop_Tobias