by @BarryRafkind in Civil and Human Rights, Development and Zoning, Neighborhoods and Squares, Public Health & Safety, Transportation
Posted on April 5, 2009 at 10:20 pm
Last Modified on April 8, 2009 at 7:03 pm
To : Members of the Public Health and Safety Committee of the Somerville Board of Aldermen
c/o: City Clerk, John Long [JLong(at)somervillema.gov]
Date : Sunday, April 5, 2009
Dear Chairperson Bill White and distinguished aldermen,
I strongly object to the installation of surveillance cameras in public spaces around our city and urge you to request their immediate removal. I believe this surveillance program, which was roundly rejected in Cambridge, MA, violates American ideals of freedom and liberty and the Constitutional right to privacy.
Secrecy erodes Public Trust in Government and therefore makes our community Less Safe
This program is harmful to our community because its secret installation and lack of transparency violate the public trust. When the government does not trust the people enough to announce its activities, the people lose confidence in the government’s ability to offer public safety. When the government fails to carry out a public process before implementing a new program, the people become resentful. When the people are told that the location of surveillance cameras must be kept secret without rational justification, the public trust in government erodes. When the people do not trust their government, it diminishes their spirit of cooperation with the police and that makes our community less safe.
Furthermore, public mistrust results from the lack of transparency about who will be looking at the recorded photographs and how they will be used. As we have learned from SPD Chief Holloway, the tapes may be requested by other police agencies or may be obtained by any member of the public. For instance, a peaceful group of local anti-war protesters may one day be wrongly suspected of terrorist activities by a federal agent. Anxiety about such a scenario will have a chilling effect on the Constitutionally protected right of public protest.
I am very concerned about “mission creep” which refers to the possibility that the surveillance cameras will someday be used for purposes beyond currently-stated objectives. If and when this happens, I am deeply skeptical that the public will find out about it, given that the program was begun secretly.
The policy of keeping the surveillance network secure, the locations secret, and the data storage limited to two weeks is inconsistent with the policy of making the data publicly available to anyone who requests it. We are told that any member of the public can walk into a police sub-station and look at the video feeds to see what the cameras can see. That makes it easy to identify the locations of the cameras which contradicts the official secrecy of their whereabouts. Any member of the public may obtain a copy of recorded video, so why keep the network secure? Secrecy and its irrational justifications make the public mistrust this system further.
How can the public trust that the network is being kept secure, when Chief Holloway accidentally included the list of top-secret exact camera locations in the papers handed out to the aldermen at the hearing? Why keep the locations secret when they can be seen if you look for them? As I passed through Davis Square on my way to and from the hearing, I noticed the white elongated surveillance camera hanging down from a traffic light in front of the entrance to Highland Ave.
The chief claims that the network is secure because they use secret credentials to access the network, yet he revealed his username “aholloway” during the hearing. The username is half of his credentials and probably also the same username he uses on other police computer systems. With so much data breached at a public hearing, one wonders how secure the SPD can keep the network. Furthermore, the system will operate over a wireless network, which everyone knows will be a target for hackers, as are all computer systems of any significance.
We are told the network will be kept secret and secure, yet the records are to be made public and data has already been leaked. This is a farce!
Ineffectiveness towards Solving or Preventing Crime
At the committee’s public hearing on Wed, Apr 1st, 2009, we learned that the default resolution of the cameras is not high enough to identify faces or license plate numbers. The cameras will only zoom in if given the commands to do so by the agents in the office, and even then, it is not clear whether the still-frames would be able to make out enough detail to catch someone committing a crime. In the single anecdote offered by Chief Holloway of suspicious kids running on the community path, the officers were not able to identify them from the video. Furthermore, it is not clear whether the cameras can see in the dark.
I am also skeptical about the claim that the cameras will deter crime, especially if their locations are not obvious. But even if criminals knew where they were placed, it would seem logical for the criminal activity to simply move to other areas.
Furthermore, I fear that these cameras will give the police a false sense of security, and therefore they may put fewer patrol officers in the watched areas, actually making it less safe there.
One of the primary justifications for the surveillance cameras that we heard at the public hearing is that they will aide the authorities in regulating traffic flow during emergencies such as an evacuation or a 911 call. However, information about traffic flow would already be available from officers on patrol. And, such emergency situations would not require constantly recorded surveillance, but rather only enabling the system when needed. Emergency routes are already well-defined, and the places of high congestion are already well-known. Furthermore, the cameras placed over the community path would be totally irrelevant for such traffic regulation.
Investigate, then Legislate!
I urge you to investigate the way in which this surveillance network was installed in our city while by-passing a public process. It seems clear to me that the Board of Aldermen was bribed by the DHS grant, or at least it caved in to the pressure of accepting the money. Once we understand what happened, I would urge the Aldermen to pass an ordinance banning such surveillance cameras from our city.
City Burdened with Maintenance Costs
Although the first year costs of the surveillance system were covered by the DHS grant, subsequent annual costs will be billed to the city. Our police department will be saddled with the responsibility for maintaining the system, distracting them to some degree from actually protecting the public. In this economically difficult time of budget cuts to vital services, we will have to pay for an ineffective system we didn’t ask for, that deepens public mistrust of government, and ultimately makes our community less safe. Tax payer money should be hiring more officers, not paying for junk technology that our community doesn’t want.
Contrary to the statement by the assistant city solicitor at the public hearing, our community does have an expectation of privacy in our public spaces. Let’s not turn America, the land of the free, into a police state with Big Brother watching us everywhere we go.
Thanks for holding the public hearing and for taking public comments on this important issue.
Ossipee Road, Ward 7