Privacy SOS

by Nancy Murray

If you were around last summer, you may know that plans are afoot to install eight new surveillance cameras in Cambridge so police can monitor public areas (Cambridge Chronicle, August 13, 2008). 
Eight cameras might not seem particularly newsworthy. After all, we are used to cameras keeping track of us when we enter stores or use the ATM machine. 
These cameras are different. For one thing, they were purchased with a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security, which has been handing out tens of millions of dollars to fund the creation of a national web of surveillance cameras in the name of “fighting terrorism.” Even Liberty, Kansas – population 95 – now has one, thanks to a DHS grant.
For another thing, the cameras bought to monitor Cambridge streets are not really “ours.” Instead, they are part of a network linking nine cities and towns, with the nerve center in Boston. 
This raises a host of questions. Whose eyes will be watching us as we go about our daily business? Will the digital images be shared – if so, with what agencies and on what terms? Where will they be stored and for how long? Who will have access to them? Will they, like so much other public and private data, be transmitted to the Commonwealth Fusion Center?
What is the Fusion Center?
If you have never heard of the Commonwealth Fusion Center (CFC), you are not alone. Now based in Maynard, the CFC was the nation’s first fusion center. It was created in October 2004 by then-Governor Romney with little or no legislative or public debate. Three years later, there were 66 state, local, and regional fusion centers across the country.
Fusion centers vary from state to state, but they all share a single purpose, described by the Justice Department as analyzing data from disparate sources “with the goal of maximizing their ability to detect, prevent, investigate, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity.” 
Their access to data collection appears virtually unlimited. They ingest government data, and information compiled by private data mining companies, tips about “suspicious activity” called in by the public – and just possibly data from the growing number of surveillance cameras across the Commonwealth and country. 
Operating with no independent oversight and with overlapping lines of authority between federal and state agencies, the secretive fusion centers are the hubs of a new domestic intelligence apparatus that involves collecting information about everyday activities and personal relationships as well as crime, and using data mining techniques to identify individuals for closer scrutiny. This, of course, has huge implications for lawful political activity, as well as our privacy. 
What we know about surveillance cameras
If we don’t know much about the operation of fusion centers, we do know a good deal about the capabilities of modern surveillance cameras. 
They are enormously powerful and have the capacity to tilt, zoom and rapidly rotate 360 degrees in less than a second. They can “read” the title of a book from a mile away. They can track an individual and “see” clearly at night. And they can be fitted with face-recognition software, face and eye scans, or technology purporting to detect “anomalous” or “suspicious” behavior. 
We also know they can be – and have been – misused, as in reported cases where police-voyeurs zoomed in on women’s bodies or used their cameras to profile people of color. And they are wide open to “mission creep.” Cameras installed today to monitor “evacuation routes” will inevitably be used for a variety of law-enforcement purposes.
That might not seem such a bad thing, since can’t cameras help keep us safe? In fact, several studies show that surveillance cameras are not effective in fighting crime. It appears that the costs associated with their maintenance and monitoring can be better spent in other ways, such as improving community policing and providing more street lighting.
Toward a total surveillance society?
In Brookline, which is getting 12 cameras as part of the same DHS grant, residents have engaged in a vigorous public debate about the surveillance of their public spaces. Two public hearings have been held, during which dozens of residents expressed their concerns before the Board of Selectmen. “Brookline wary of surveillance cameras – Residents resist installation push,” was the headline in the December 15, 2008 Boston Globe. 
Now it is Cambridge’s turn to ask questions about how the cameras will be used, and consider whether they should be used at all. On Thursday, January 22, 2009 there will be a public hearing on the issue before the Cambridge City Council. I hope you will participate – the essence of our free society may well be at stake. 
Nancy Murray, a Cambridge resident, is Director of Education at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.