Big Brother, or useful public safety tool and weather forecaster?

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Surfline.com's cameras are typically stationed at residential homes or businesses that are located near a particular surf break.

More beach cameras will be installed in Malibu; some county lifeguards say the cameras are necessary to assist in public safety, while opponents claim many local residents oppose their use.

By Stephen Dorman/Special to The Malibu Times

Throughout Malibu there currently exists a variety of different opinions as to whether beach cameras help or hurt the local community.

Proponents say the cameras assist in public safety, collect necessary environmental data and even act as a window to the outside world for computer users, who spend a majority of their day inside an office.

Meanwhile, critics often counter that the cameras are an intrusion on privacy and further contribute to crowded beaches and surf breaks.

But despite the contrasting opinions, expansion plans for the cameras are on the horizon.

“We have 14 cameras in operation right now,” said Michael Bateman, ocean lifeguard project manager for the Coastal Monitoring Network. “We will have 27 [in Los Angeles County] when we are done. And, yes, there will be some more in Malibu.”

Bateman has supervised the day-to-day operation of watchthewater.org, a U.S. Department of Commerce funded Web site, since its inception in August 2003. The Web site, according to its description, is a “network of web cameras and meteorological instruments [that] aid in staffing beaches, tracking rescue activity, creating public education materials, and collecting environmental data for use in pursuing our common goals of protecting and educating the public, safeguarding property and preserving the environment.”

Currently, watchthewater.org has two cameras set up in Malibu, one at Surfrider Beach and another atop the lifeguard tower on Zuma Beach. Bateman would not confirm where cameras would be placed in the future, but did say privacy concerns would be fully addressed before any more cameras are installed.

“Ours is a model program for responsible use of technology,” Bateman said. “It’s full disclosure to where the cameras are. What people see on the Web site is exactly what we see at the lifeguard station.”

He also added the cameras produce less than one-third of one megapixil on a computer screen, which makes facial recognition of people on the beach ” basically impossible.” Furthermore, Bateman said he has had zero complaints about the cameras since the program was initiated.

Zuma Beach Lifeguard Captain Nick Steers agrees that the cameras provide a necessary public service and are much more effective than calling weather hotlines that are only updated one or twice per day.

“The public likes it,” Steers said. “Instead of calling a phone number they can go to the Web site and instantly tell if it’s sunny or cloudy at the beach. There are other features, too, such as [ultraviolet] indexes, humidity readings and wind reports.”

However, not all city lifeguards are in favor of the use of the beach cameras. Two lifeguards patrolling separate beaches in the city, who spoke on the condition their names not be used, said the cameras were “the ultimate big brother device,” adding, “we didn’t feel safe having people know the location of the camera because of all the other equipment we have near it.”

Many local surfers have opposed the eye in the sky, too.

“Nobody likes [the cameras],” Jefferson Wagner, owner of Zuma Jay’s Surf Shop said. “The people that live along the PCH or a mile off the ocean don’t like them at all. It’s the people living over the hill that are in favor of the cams.”

One private company that utilizes beach cameras is surfline.com. The Web site was created by surf forecasting pioneer Sean Collins as an online version of his 976-SURF telephone surf reports in the mid 1980s. Today, surfline.com logs more than 50,000 visitors per day and tops one million hits per month, with subscribers having the opportunity to access swell forecasts, updated beach and weather reports, as well as travel information.

Unlike the cameras used by the Coastal Monitoring Network, Surfline’s cameras are typically stationed at residential homes or businesses that are located near a particular surf break. Collins said the company generally pays for the camera space or issues advertising trade-outs on its Web site.

In Malibu, Surfline has three cameras currently in operation (Topanga Point, Surfrider Beach and County Line). A fourth camera, at Leo Carrillo State Beach, was recently shut down after the state requested payments from the company for the camera spot. Previously, Surfline had provided forecasting data to the state in exchange for the right to have its camera streaming.

“We are going to put the Leo Carrillo camera back up,” Collins said. “It’s probably going to be by the end of the year.”

Collins said Surfline only places its cameras at surf breaks that have long been exposed by the general public and would never jeopardize a less crowded spot in the name of increasing Internet traffic to its Web site.

“The rule of thumb is that we want people to make their own decisions on where to surf,” Collins said, “and we want them to do a little bit of work.”