Homeland Security Surveillance Cameras Hit Baltimore
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Homeland Security Surveillance Cameras Hit Baltimore

Howard County Times | December 16, 2004

Coming soon to Howard County: 24-hour video surveillance cameras in public places, monitored by the county police.

Perhaps as early as next year, Howard County will join a closed-circuit video security network that will extend throughout much of the Baltimore region.

The expansive regional system, which advocates tout as a homeland security effort, is similar to systems being set up elsewhere in the country. The system is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

But privacy advocates say the permanent, 24-hour systems are costly and ineffective at fighting terrorism or crime. Moreover, critics of the system say, the cameras raise serious privacy rights questions.

"There's a real big brother aspect to it," said Stacey Mink, development director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "There's something creepy about being looked at all the time."

Scores of cameras already are in place in downtown Baltimore. The first cameras began monitoring the city's Inner Harbor in June. This month, city officials announced that they soon will add 74 cameras in several high-crime neighborhoods.

Eventually, cameras will be installed in other parts of the city, as well as parts of Howard, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford dounties. All of the cameras will be linked to a single network.

In Howard County, the cameras will be used to monitor important buildings and roadways, said Herman Charity, a top aide to County Executive Jim Robey.

County officials probably will install the cameras at the county courthouse, police station and county government offices in Ellicott City, among other buildings, he said, adding that the cameras also will monitor "strategic highways" officials have yet to choose.

In addition, the county might use the cameras temporarily in high-crime areas, Charity said.

The cameras likely will be in place by early next year, he said, adding that county would not reveal the number and location of all of the cameras for security reasons.

For "critical infrastructure"

The Howard County system is still being planned, county police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said.

The cameras will be used "for critical infrastructure protection, not for doing surveillance with the general public," she added.

In addition, police might use portable cameras to monitor specific events, she said.

The county is working on the project with Anne Arundel County, Llewellyn said. The two counties will receive $600,000 in federal Homeland Security grants to fund the system.

Howard's cameras will be linked to the regional network and monitored by the county police, Charity said.

Ultimately, other jurisdictions in the system also will be able to monitor the cameras here, said Jeff Welsh, spokesman for the governor's Office of Homeland Security, which is coordinating the network.

Welsh said each of the jurisdictions that are part of the system "are taking a slightly different approach, based on their own needs."

Baltimore County, for example, will boost security at its government building, he said, while Harford County will improve monitoring of Interstate 95.

Cameras a national trend

The installation of government-monitored video surveillance systems is not uncommon in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, said Cedric Laurant, policy counsel for the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The city of Chicago, for example, plans to install 1,200 video cameras.

"It's a trend," Laurant said.

While the occasional use of video cameras to monitor specific events or high-crime areas makes sense, his group is opposed to permanent, 24-hour video surveillance systems, he said.

"There are definite privacy concerns," said Laurant, editor of a 2004 survey of privacy laws and developments throughout the world. "And they are just not effective."

Ten years ago, he said, the British government installed 120,000 video cameras throughout London in an effort to combat terrorist attacks by the Irish Republican Army. The cameras have helped nab some petty criminals, Laurant said, but have led to no arrests of terrorists.

Money spent on video cameras would be better spent on hiring more police officers, installing more lights, or boosting Neighborhood Watch programs, Laurant said.

The ACLU's Mink agreed.

"We think security cameras don't really provide an extra measure of security," she said. "And they are an attack on privacy rights."

Charity said the cameras here will be used in a way that will not pose a privacy problem.

"We're not going to set up cameras at the mall just to watch people coming and going," he said. "This is not going to be about monitoring people. It's about protecting our infrastructure."

County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone said he had not been briefed on the system and was "a little taken aback" to hear it was coming so soon.

"There may be limited applications for this but we do have to be careful to respect privacy rights," said Guzzone, a Columbia Democrat. "My guess is, if we really did everything we needed to make ourselves secure, we would be unhappy with the level of privacy we had to give up."

County Council member Ken Ulman said he was sensitive to the privacy questions the cameras provoke, but probably would support the uses planned in Howard County.

"It's a new day after 9-11," the Columbia Democrat said. "You've got to have a balance between privacy and security, ... but this is probably something we should be doing more of."

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911:  The Road to Tyranny