Privacy SOS

Cambridge says no to cameras: Pushing back against the surveillance state at the local level

Apologies to readers that the blog has been slow with updates this week. We've been busy battling surveillance cameras in Cambridge, and are gearing up for another fight over the same in Brookline. Look out for more info on the latter shortly.

Last night in Cambridge about 60-70 people came out to oppose the police chief's plans to turn on DHS-funded, networked surveillance cameras that have been installed, but not in use, for the past four years. The current arrangement was the result of a hard-won victory on behalf of city residents, the ACLU, and other interested parties. In the wake of the Boston marathon bombings, police departments in Cambridge and Brookline that had reluctantly accepted (most of) citizens' demands are now pushing for broader surveillance powers. I'm thrilled to report that the overwhelming majority of the people who turned out in Cambridge last night testified against the cameras. 

Among the people who testified against the increased police monitoring was Ron Sullivan, director of Harvard University's criminal justice institute and a professor at the law school. He drove home what we argued in our written testimony: there is no evidence to support the suggestion that cameras deter or stop crimes, and we shouldn't make public policy based on anecdotes. 

This is a critically important reminder as the battle in Brookline heats up. Advocates of more police surveillance in Brookline regularly raise the case of a rape that happened years ago, where camera footage was reportedly instrumental in assisting officers in capturing a suspect. The police say they wouldn't have been able to catch the person absent the surveillance footage.

That may or may not be true (it's awfully hard to prove such a thing), but Sullivan's point stands. There are undoubtedly cases in which cameras help investigators solve crimes after the fact, but we should not make sweeping public policy decisions based on scary anecdotes. The existing evidence suggests that cameras aren't as useful to investigators as they are made out to be, even to identify suspects after crimes have occurred. Do we want to institute blanket wide surveillance, even if it doesn't stop bad things from happening, because it is helpful to police in limited circumstances? Should we allow law enforcement to read our emails without warrants because it would make their jobs easier?

What exactly are we getting, in terms of public safety benefit, in exchange for losing our freedom from pervasive government monitoring? Who really benefits when the surveillance switch is flipped, and who loses? What's going on behind the cameras and the data terminals?

These are the questions the nation is facing in 2013. Do we roll back the surveillance state, impose limits on the NSA and FBI, and reconstitute the gold standard of American justice — the probable cause warrant? Or do we accept a future in which nothing is private, in which unaccountable and secretive government agencies know everything there is to know about our personal lives, our habits, our travel patterns, our relationships, and our communications? 

That bleak totalitarian landscape is a world I'm not willing to accept. I hope you agree. If you're interested in finding out how to combat the surveillance state at the local level, where we can make a real and immediate impact, click here. If you want to make an impact in Brookline next week, get in touch.

Let's not allow the national security state to turn our local police departments into eyes and ears for its turnkey totalitarian state. Nothing less than the possibility for democracy hangs in the balance. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.