DHS Funds Local Surveillance Systems

Matthew Harwood

Yesterday's Boston Globe reported that the Department of Homeland Security has been funding video surveillance systems across the country at the price of $23 billion in grants since 2003.

These hi-tech video camera networks are not just being installed in big cities that carry significant terrorism risks but in mid-size cities and across small-town America as well.

In the last month, cities that have moved forward on plans for surveillance networks financed by the Homeland Security Department include St. Paul, which got a $1.2 million grant for 60 cameras for downtown; Madison, Wis., which is buying a 32-camera network with a $388,000 grant; and Pittsburgh, which is adding 83 cameras to its downtown with a $2.58 million grant.

Small towns are also getting their share of the federal money for surveillance to thwart crime and terrorism.

Recent examples include Liberty, Kan. (population 95), which accepted a federal grant to install a $5,000 G2 Sentinel camera in its park, and Scottsbluff, Neb. (population 14,000), where police used a $180,000 Homeland Security Department grant to purchase four closed-circuit digital cameras and two monitors, a system originally designed for Times Square in New York City.

DHS does not apologize for advocating the proliferation of surveillance systems and argues that  these systems are an important tool for protecting the nation. Privacy-rights advocates disagree and fear a "surveillance society" will arise where information gathered by such systems could then be used against individuals for reasons other than combating terrorism and crime, such as in the past when the government recorded who had attended a political rally.

But Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of DHS, disagrees with much of what privacy-rights advocates say. In an opinion piece last week in the Baltimore Sun, Ervin argued that surveillance systems, like the London-style one proposed for Lower Manhattan, strike the right balance between personal privacy and security.

Civil libertarians are, predictably, up in arms. But, this time, the "securitycrats" have the better argument. For one thing, the cameras are not to be deployed in people's bedrooms or bathrooms, but on public streets and other public places where people have no reasonable expectation of privacy. For another, there are already cameras - tens of thousands of them - in public places (buildings, street corners, convenience stores, ATMs) throughout the city (and every other major city in the country, for that matter) over which there are no safeguards against abuse whatsoever.

Regarding security, few people argue that cameras have any deterrent value, but many, including Ervin, say that cameras work as a useful investigative tool after a crime or a terrorist attack. He points to the United Kingdom and how effective its surveillance networks were in identifying the bombers in the aftermath of the July 7, 2005, attacks as well as identifying the bombers of another similar plot two weeks later. The UK's surveillance system also played a large role in the investigation of the botched London and Glasgow attacks this June.

Whatever their use, the American public seems to have come to terms with increased government onlooking post-911. The Globe, referencing a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, reports 71 percent of Americans are in favor of increased use of surveillance cameras; 25 percent are opposed.


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