Democratic process challenges use of DHS surveillance cameras

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at 11:35 am by

camera-500x333From 2008 to 2010, Boston and eight surrounding cities and towns installed surveillance cameras provided by a grant through the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Urban Areas Security Initiative. DHS’ website describes the cameras as part of a system that has “nine, independent and interoperable nodes tied together through a central hub and is made up of over 100 cameras.”  The cameras were justified for the protection of “critical infrastructure” from terrorist attack, but their use has faced scrutiny from citizens concerned about threats to civil liberties. In Brookline and Cambridge, two municipalities covered by the grant, residents are using local governments to attempt to ban surveillance cameras.

Four members of Brookline’s Town Meeting, the two hundred and forty-five member legislature of the town government, are co-sponsoring a resolution calling on Brookline’s Board of Selectmen to remove all DHS-provided cameras. The resolution is expected to be voted on by Thursday, November 21. While the Town Meeting cannot set binding policy on the use of surveillance cameras, which is left to the Board of Selectmen, its role as the voice for public opinion can have major impact. In 2009, the Town Meeting passed a similar resolution, which led to a compromise with the Brookline Police Department that the cameras would only operate from 10 pm to 6 am. However, the Brookline police are seeking to implement a policy of 24-hour surveillance following the Boston Marathon bombing, which now has prompted four Town Meeting members to co-sponsor another resolution.

The proposed resolution states that mass surveillance is not appropriate for a free society, and further declares:

“Permanent surveillance cameras are another step in the wrong direction toward radically changing our sense of being a free society…While public places may not, in a technical legal sense, be places where we have an ‘expectation of privacy,’ the right to be let alone and not identified or tracked by the police is a fundamental aspect of a free society.”

One of those co-sponsors, Clint Richmond, expressed concern about the chilling effect surveillance cameras can have on the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly, specifically citing that one camera is located at a popular site in Brookline for political activity. Richmond stated his belief that when people know they are under surveillance, their “behavior becomes inhibitive, impairing the right to free speech.”

Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM), has worked with Brookline PAX, a progressive organization of Brookline residents, providing community organizing support against the DHS cameras. Crockford conveyed her belief that the mass use of surveillance cameras foregoes more effective alternatives to reducing crime, since they do not deter crime and when perpetrators are caught after the fact, the vast majority of cases are for minor crimes, such as petty theft. She said it is thus “misleading” to claim that cameras can be effective at stopping terrorism. Another fear Crockford discussed was the “centralization of surveillance” provided by the cameras, since they are part of a larger network throughout Greater Boston, meaning they could potentially allow a person to be followed over a large geographical area.

Residents of Cambridge have thus far achieved the most success in limiting camera use of the nine Greater Boston municipalities that have them. As with Brookline, the Cambridge Police Department (CPD) also supports turning the cameras on twenty-four hours a day. However, in response to pressure from the Cambridge City Council, they have not been turned on at any point, despite being installed in 2009. The CPD recently published a draft policy for the use of the cameras, which was discussed at a public hearing on September 26, 2013. The ACLUM provided a statement at this meeting, which addressed the larger context of surveillance camera use, stating

“After 9/11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security catalyzed a transfer of funds, technologies, strategies, and tactics from the military and intelligence worlds down to the state and local levels. These transfers are part of a larger, dangerous trend of powerful and largely unaccountable federal agencies conscripting local police to act as eyes and ears for the national surveillance state.”

The City Council is waiting for the CPD to release its final draft of a policy before voting again on the issue, which is likely to happen in early 2015. Melissa Gonzalez, a member of Cambridge’s Human Rights Commission, the town government agency responsible for investigating unlawful discrimination, said there was great concern that cameras were placed in neighborhoods that could be profiling people of specific ethnicities and religion. She also expressed concern that there was insufficient accountability for camera use if activated, because the CPD cites only its own internal review procedures to ensure appropriate usage.

The fate of the cameras in both municipalities remains uncertain, as the impact of the Boston Marathon bombing has affected many people’s attitudes towards surveillance cameras. Richmond says he expects the vote in Brookline this week to be very close. In Cambridge, it is unclear how the City Council will react to a final CPD policy on camera use. Nonetheless, both municipalities exemplify how the democratic process can be used to limit the growing surveillance state.

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One Response to “Democratic process challenges use of DHS surveillance cameras”

  1. People's Blog for the Constitution » Brookline, MA opposes expansion of cameras provided by Homeland Security Says:

    [...] of Brookline, Massachusetts debated an issue at the nexus of national security and local politics: the use of surveillance cameras provided to police by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Since 2009, Brookline police [...]

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