Various news sites are reporting that the Cambridge, Mass., City Council has unanimously rejected the activation of a surveillance camera network in the city. The city had used $264,000 from a US Department of Homeland Security grant to buy eight cameras and set up the wireless infrastructure necessary to surveil the public generally. I was heartened to see that the council highlighted several problems including lack of public debate about the closed-circuit television (CCTV) system, the lack of details concerning how the system will work (data access, retention, and destruction), and the substantial privacy problems raised by constant surveillance of the general public.
The council passed two Policy Order Resolutions detailing their concerns about the cameras. Resolution O-18 highlights that the council only recently learned of the eight surveillance cameras even though they were set to become active at the end of the month. Also noted:
Public safety officials were hard pressed to convincingly illustrate why these eight cameras would enhance and significantly expand their abilities to keep Cambridge residents safe (belief being that they already have the capacity to do this job); and […]
At this time, the potential threats to invasion of privacy and individual civil liberties outweigh the current benefits – which do not seem significant in improving public safety.
In Resolution 0-21, the council told the City Manager “to halt all work on the Department of Homeland Security camera network, to include supporting infrastructure,” while the public debates the system. The resolution also stated:
WHEREAS: The City Council and City agencies have not formalized a policy around the use of these surveillance cameras nor is it clearly understood what might happen to recorded data in the future; and
WHEREAS: Many members of the public are concerned about how these cameras might intrude upon their reasonable expectations of privacy; and
WHEREAS: It is difficult to discuss this issue without a better understanding of the underlying grant that provided the cameras and related infrastructure
City Councilmember Marjorie Decker joined John Roberts, a Cambridge resident and retired director of the Massachusetts ACLU, in writing a commentary on the system. They make some interesting points, especially concerning the DHS grant money:
Of particular concern is the lack of transparency in which the Homeland Security Grants to implement the camera technology were awarded. We are told the purpose of the eight DHS-funded cameras is to monitor evacuation routes. Our public safety officials, in a recent council hearing, acknowledged that the cameras are not for the purpose of reducing crime. They also acknowledged they do not foresee the use of these cameras in helping in a massive evacuation. When further questioned, our public safety officials responded that the cameras do not necessarily expand their capacity to do their job.
It is curious that communities who applied for these grants were allowed to design their own application. Every town that has applied was awarded the grant money. The one stipulation is that a community could not benefit from the technological infrastructure if they did not install the cameras. The only thing clear to us is that the DHS wants the installation of cameras throughout the country – without requesting much more information.
The fact that there was so little public discussion of the system that the city’s own council only recently learned of the cameras is disturbing. The public has every right to demand full information on system that city officials sought to impose upon them. Among other things, the public needs to know: 1) what the goals of the cameras are; 2) what measurements will be used to evaluate whether the camera surveillance system accomplishes this goal; 3) what the regulations are concerning data uses, access, retention, and destruction; 4) what will be the oversight and redress regulations; and, 5) how were the locations of the cameras decided?
City officials stated that the cameras were to be used in case of an evacuation. I could see that argument for a sprawling city, but Cambridge is only 6.2 square miles, which makes a surveillance system seem unnecessary for evacuation purposes. As for a purpose of cutting down on crime, numerous studies (pdf) by law enforcement officials have shown (pdf) that camera surveillance systems do not have a significant effect on crime. A recent study from San Francisco reported:
San Francisco’s Community Safety Camera Program was launched in late 2005 with the dual goals of fighting crime and providing police investigators with a retroactive investigatory tool. The program placed more than 70 non-monitored cameras in mainly high-crime areas throughout the city. This [report’s … ] results find that while the program did result in a 20% reduction in property crime within the view of the cameras, other forms of crime were not affected, including violent crime, one of the primary targets of the program.
The oversight and redress regulations are especially important, as I noted in testimony to the DC City Council (pdf) concerning its camera surveillance system:
[T]here must be accountability. CCTV operators and other  program employees must be trained on the regulations set up to protect District residents and visitors. These employees must be legally responsible for complying with these regulations. A separate oversight office should be created and required to audit and evaluate the system at least annually.
[… Also] there must be individual participation. Individuals should be able to learn about the data collected on them and rectify any problems in the data. Individuals should have a private right of action so that they may be able to police their rights in case of misuse or abuse of the [system].
My testimony also details other privacy, security, and civil liberty problems connected with camera surveillance systems, and you can learn more about CCTV in the archives. Also, ACLU has created a site to track the proliferation of video surveillance systems throughout the United States.
The city of Cambridge has many questions to answer when debating the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of the proposed surveillance system. Remember that camera surveillance systems, video watchers, watchers of the video watchers, and other expenses related to CCTV operations do not exist in a vacuum. Any money spent on the camera surveillance system (in Cambridge’s case $264,000, so far) will not be spent on other security or public safety needs, such as increased foot patrol or communications equipment for first responders. The city must make this debate open and transparent so residents can be a part of the decision that will affect each of them.