Department of Homeland Security funding surveillance on the local levelThursday, September 19, 2013 at 10:00 am by Sarah Berlin
All across the country, from Dallas to Las Vegas to Santa Cruz, communities are using funds from the Department of Homeland Security to implement dragnet surveillance on the local level. Federal funding for local surveillance typically buys equipment that allows local police to monitor and store information about all people, not just those suspected of committing a crime.
This could mean installing close-circuit security cameras around the city that record the actions of all passersby or using scanners to photograph the license plates of every car, storing that information indefinitely in a database. In two extreme examples, the city of Berkeley received a $200,000 from DHS to purchase an “Armored Response Counter Attack Truck” and Alameda County in California wanted to use $31,646 of grant funds to buy a drone.
This pipeline of federal funds to local police departments reflects many of the recurrent features of today’s surveillance state. There has been a great deal of secrecy regarding the funding process as well as a lack of oversight for how the money is spent. Providing surveillance technology to local police is yet another example of the militarization of police in the domestic “War on Terror,” which increasingly targets innocent people and infringes on their right to privacy. Additionally, cities and police departments circumvent the democratic process in applying for and utilizing this funding. Matthew Cagle of the ACLU of Northern California explains,
Like the federal intelligence community’s black budget, which allows our federal government to allocate billions of taxpayer dollars for spying, all without public debate, these federal grants to local communities also distort the democratic process and prevent a meaningful discussion of the relative costs and benefits of surveillance technology.
Proponents of increased local surveillance might argue that it helps solve crimes, providing a necessary tool for law enforcement. The speedy identification of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, which involved the use of closed-circuit security cameras, seems like a prime illustration of how city-wide surveillance can serve an important purpose.
On the other hand, CNN’s Keith Proctor points out that relative to cities like New York or Chicago, Boston is a minimally surveiled city and Massachusetts ranks 34th in per capita homeland security grant spending. Law enforcement actually used a combination of closed-circuit cameras, cell phone photographs, and witnesses to successfully identify the suspects, suggesting that simply adding more camera surveillance does ensure better crime-solving. Ben Wizner, Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project also pointed out that cameras might help to solve crimes, but realistically they do little to prevent or deter crimes.
The assumption that more surveillance is always better makes us vulnerable to violations of our rights and the abuses that frequently occur. Furthermore, subverting the democratic process to implement such measures precludes accountability and fair debate about what will make truly make us safe. Communities should have the opportunity to weigh in on how federal spending makes its way into their police departments and to oppose this compromise of freedom for unnecessary security measures.