Friday, February 1, 2008

Surveillance Cameras To Be In Every Town In America

by Mike Vecch

In 2001, Tampa became the first major US city to install face scanning security cameras. They started with 36 in the popular nightlife area of Ybor City, with the goal of arresting individuals with outstanding warrants. The cameras scan the face of every passerby, capture it in an image, than relay that image to a central processing system where it attempts matching it with mug shots of wanted individuals in a database. At the time, it was a hotly contested issue, one that some Tampanians fought based on privacy concerns. However, the plans went ahead and cameras were installed, justifying there use by labeling the Ybor City area as a "crime-ridden" district of the city.

You may be asking why I am bringing this story back to light now. Well, for one, I was living in Tampa at the time, so the story and city are near and dear to me. Furthermore, I always like to start at the beginning, recounting the first instance where we had a chance to stop tyranny. What started in Tampa, continues today throughout America. Shortly after the face-scanning cameras were installed in Tampa (the test market), our nation was faced with 9-11-2001, which spawned the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Between 2003 and 2007, Homeland Security authorized grants in the amounts of $23 Billion for towns and cities alike to install similar surveillance cameras on city streets and in city parks.

Now they are in major cities like New York, Baltimore, Boston and Chicago. These cities have massive surveillance systems purchased with federal grants, that may be linked with private surveillance systems as well. And just last year, St. Paul, MN; Madison, WI; and Pittsburgh, PA all got multi-million dollar surveillance systems. Most disturbing though, is small-town USA. Towns with populations as low as 95 people have been installing cameras in their public spaces, systems that were originally designed for Times Square.

In many instances local government realizes that the systems are not entirely necessary but the Department of Homeland Security makes them very attractive, by offering federal money that could be used for other things to make the cities and towns "safer." The cameras make people uncomfortable, to say the least, but more importantly, they make us feel less free. The videos are high resolution and digital from start to finish. The footage is transmitted easily and stored digitally and indefinitely on hard drives. Working in IT, I know that hard drive space is very cheap, takes up very little room, and can hold what seems like unlimited amounts of data if you have enough of it. Plus, the software is designed to scan without the need of a human user, it simply looks for certain types of behavior.

All this, and studies show that installing surveillance cameras DOES NOT deter crime or terrorism. In some instances it makes it easier to apprehend a suspect after the act was committed. However, what else could have been done with $23 Billion in 5 years, to help apprehend suspects? So far, how many terrorists have been caught using this system? Let me know if you have heard of one.

At the time, what was happening in Tampa was just a threat to our civil liberties and a scary sign of possible things to come, if we did not challenge them there at the beginning. Some tried but it wasn't enough and now the threat is reality. There were protests of course, as there always are, because some saw the unlimited potential for abuse. Today, that potential is realized because we put no restrictions on how the cameras were to be used. The Supreme Court has ruled that Americans should not expect privacy once they step outside their homes, but most Americans do expect a certain degree of anonymity. Plus, I don't think that the legislators and justices ever envisioned law enforcement and government abusing this technology to the degree that they have. I don't believe that they saw the potential for law enforcement to turn America into an Orwelian Totalitarian Police State, under the watchful eye of Big Brother, where images of our faces are scanned into a national database by simply walking down the street or through a park.

The only question now is, which mask do I wear when I go out in public now? Would it be cliche to wear a Guy Fawkes mask? How about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or maybe Ron Paul?

Further, your not safe in your car either. This same technology is also used to scan license plates, so don't be surprised when you get a traffic violation in the mail for something you can't remember doing. And cell phones, if you have one, your voice has been recorded in a voice database as well. So, maybe my credit card company is right and I need Identity Theft protection . . . from the government.

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