A funny thing happens when you start thinking about something. As I was waiting for the 90 bus to take me to the public comment forum on the installation of seven Homeland Security cameras in the City of Somerville, I had security cameras on my mind. I’d just done a blog post about how angry a creepy camera system rigged up to monitor a Mustang up the street on Broadway made me. Freezing my tatas off waiting for bus (it never showed up—I had to take a cab), I happened to look up at the old fire station on the corner of Broadway and Cross Street.
And that’s when I saw the Homeland Security camera, mounted on top of the building. Grr! I can see that chimney from my living room window, and while I had noticed the space-age antenna, I had not noticed the camera before. A camera that can look directly into my apartment, should I be suspected of malfeasance. Or, if Big Brother just wanted to see what I’m doing in my living room (I can think of a couple of times when he could have seen quite a show).
Here’s Looking at You, Big Brother!
I arrived with boiled blood at the comment forum. There I learned that without public knowledge or input, the City of Somerville applied for and accepted a grant through the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Bureau of Security Initiative. Included in the grant was funding for the installation of seven cameras in undisclosed public places around the city, ostensibly to monitor traffic routes and the community bike path. One camera had been spied atop the unfortunately named SCAT building in Union Square, and another in Davis Square (and now we know where the one in East Somerville is located).
According to the chair of the city’s department of Public Health and Safety, the aldermen, in approving the grant, were not aware that the cameras were included in the funding. By the time they learned of the situation, things were already underway to install the cameras. Last night’s forum was the attempt by the aldermen to retroactively allow the people of Somerville to comment on the issue. Judging from their questions, most of the aldermen in attendance were very uncomfortable with existence of the cameras and felt that they violated our civil liberties.
Prior to hearing from the public, the Police Chief Anthony Holloway gave some remarks and answered questions from the alderman. He also mistakenly gave them a sheet with the locations of all the cameras. Attempting to reassure the public, Holloway testified that the cameras were not being used to spy on people and that unless a zoom feature is used, the images are grainy (though in color) and do not show things like license plate numbers or faces. The primary purposes of the cameras are to aid in police investigations of crimes and to help the police and fire departments to evacuate Somerville in the event of a terrorist attack or other emergency.
According to Holloway, private residences are shadowed, and the cameras do not film what goes on inside (unless a crime is reported, presumably). Access to the zoom feature is password-protected and limited to nine people in the police department and may only be used if a crime has been reported. If it is used, an alert goes to the Homeland Security officer at the department. Anyone caught abusing the system will be fired immediately. Tapes from the security cameras are kept for fourteen days and then taped over (this was a change from the original thirty-day storage policy). The server keeping the data from the cameras is in Somerville, and permission must be granted for other towns or government entities to access it. With the checks and balances in place, Holloway testified, there is no threat to the civil liberties of the citizens of Somerville.
With all due respect to Chief Holloway, someone I believe to be duped, bullshit. Are we really supposed to believe that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has no access to the data? Technology is power, and power lends itself to abuse. Maybe not today, but sometime in the future, when the public became used to the cameras, the surveillance capabilities would be enhanced. Stored data is data that can be hacked and abused. It is only a matter of time.
These cameras represent a gross violation of the civil liberties of the people of Somerville (and Boston and other surrounding communities that have installed the cameras. Cambridge has chosen to dismantle them). Not only do they needlessly invade our privacy, but also, if they are used in a manner consistent with Chief Holloway’s testimony, then they are essentially useless. They will not deter crime, and only if a criminal stays on the scene will she or he be caught on film by the time one of the nine people with password access is able to get to a computer and zoom in on the location. Do we really need continuous surveillance if one of the primary uses of the cameras is to aid in an evacuation?
Those who offered public comment, with one half-hearted exception by a woman living on the bike path whose house has been vandalized, were unanimous in their opposition to the cameras and furious that they were installed without the opportunity for the people to weigh in. Although I did not comment at the forum, I will be submitting a written statement for the record. The camera on Broadway and Cross Street will catch me every single day, doing nothing more than going about my business. And I’m pissed.
If you live in Somerville, you have until April 15 to submit written comment on this critical issue. You may direct your comments here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
These cameras need to come down. Now.