Reminder: Tonight at 7:00 at City Hall is the hearing on surveillance cameras. Below is an op-ed that appeared in last week’s Somerville Journal. Please come and give your opinion tonight! Thanks,
On March 31, there will be a City Hall hearing on the surveillance cameras that have been installed in Somerville. One camera is in operation on top of the SCAT building in Union Square. Where are the others? We aren’t sure, because they were installed without any notification to Somerville residents.
The purchase of seven cameras with a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security was reported last August in the Somerville Journal. Some residents may wonder why we should be concerned about these particular cameras, when there are cameras keeping track of us when we enter stores, park our cars and use ATM machines. If we didn’t pay for them, and they can be used to deter crime, why should we care?
The reason to care is that these cameras were installed in nine towns without the public being given a chance to tell elected officials whether they want to be watched as they go about their lives. Somerville, Cambridge and Brookline are part of the nine-town network based in Boston that asked Homeland Security for a total of 95 cameras at least five years ago.
Cambridge and Brookline recently held hearings on the cameras watching their residents. After listening to city employees and the public, the Cambridge City Council voted unanimously to reject the cameras, because they were worried about the secrecy surrounding their installation and use. They felt the justification given for the cameras — to facilitate the flow of traffic during an evacuation — was outweighed by their potential for abuse and the threat they posed to a free society. In Brookline, after the Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 to approve a yearlong trial period for the use of the cameras, residents are organizing to take the issue to town meeting in May.
Crime and cameras, and the cost
There are many reasons to be opposed to the cameras. First, they have not been proven to be useful crime-fighting tools. Recent studies have shown that surveillance cameras are not effective in reducing violent crime and drug offenses.
Secondly, although these cameras may be initially “free,” they will cost money to operate and maintain. Brookline, for instance, will have to pay an estimated $15,000 for maintenance after the first year. To reduce crime, these funds would be better used to improve streetlighting, or to pay for a police officer on the street.
Potential for abuse
A third concern is the power of modern surveillance cameras and the way they could be open to “mission creep” and abuse.
They can rapidly rotate 360 degrees, pan, tilt and zoom, and have the capacity to track individuals, “see” what they are reading and peer into windows. They can easily be misused. In Britain, for instance, there are reported cases of cameras being used for “racial profiling” or being focused on women’s body parts.
An emerging surveillance network
Finally, there are serious privacy concerns.
During the Cambridge and Brookline hearings, it became clear that the cameras may be part of a larger government system. Over the last six years, the Department of Homeland Security has created networks of digital surveillance cameras across the country.
It is not clear whose eyes will be watching residents and what agencies will have access to the digital images. Will they be stored and, if so, for how long? Will the cameras capture images of protected First Amendment activity?
Will Homeland Security get this data? Will it be kept by the Commonwealth Fusion Center, as is the case with so much other public and private data?
The Fusion Center was set up by former Gov. Romney in Maynard without any debate in the Legislature. It was the first of 60 fusions centers across the country.
These centers absorb information about everyday activities, tips from the public about suspicious activity, and crime. They use data mining techniques to identify individuals for further scrutiny and are the hubs of a new, secretive domestic intelligence network.
We know that some anti-war groups and environmental groups are now in government data banks as “terrorist” organizations. In some communities, police film people engaging in lawful protests. Is this the kind of information that finds its way to fusion centers across the country? How will it be used?
What kind of society do we want to be?
Even though most residents are doing nothing wrong when they walk down a street, they understand that one of the most basic freedoms in our country is the freedom to have the government leave you alone. Somerville residents now have the opportunity to say that they want to keep that freedom in Somerville. We hope you will attend the 7 p.m. hearing March 31. Cameras that could have a big impact on our community should not be kept in the dark.
Eileen Feldman, Hillside Park
Benjamin Greenberg, Josephine Avenue
Todd Kaplan, Kidder Avenue
Mary Lu Mendonca, Webster Street
Melissa McWhinney, Dickson Street