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Tuesday Night at Brookline Town Meeting: Surveillance Cameras

Probably the most controversial pair of articles to come in front of Brookline Town Meeting at the session just past were the ones devoted to the security cameras.

In brief, a few months back the town received money from the Department of Homeland Security to set up a few security cameras in some of the more high-traffic areas of the town. The police department planned to use these cameras to help fight crime. They had some reasonable arguments in favor of the use of these cameras, pointing out that they were only in public spaces and that the footage would be useful in reconstructing events.

Despite these assurances, though, and despite the respect and trust that the town has in our police chief and our police department, there was a grass-roots movement to fight the cameras. People opposed to them were concerned about a variety of things, including the storage of the footage, access to the footage, and a general unease having to do with anything coming from the Department of Homeland Security.

Although I myself would tend to side with the folks opposed to the cameras, I wasn't active in the fight, because I didn't really see the harm. In fact, despite my standard liberal progressive voting record in Town Meeting, I wasn't sure where I would end up voting on the cameras. I listened closely to the very reasoned arguments of two of my fellow Town Meeting Members from precinct 12 as we discussed the cameras in a discussion meeting before Town Meeting. Casey Hatchett, who is also a police officer, supported the cameras and pointed out all their usefulness to the department in keeping the town safe. David Klafter, who is firmly in the progressive camp, opposed the cameras and warned about the encroachment on our liberties. (I was pleased when both of my fellow TMMs brought their arguments to the floor of Town Meeting, one right after the other.)

The cameras have been in place in a pilot program now for a few months, the idea being that the town can evaluate how effective they are and whether or not they are a good idea. Although it is the decision of the Board of Selectmen to keep the program going, Town Meeting chose to weigh in on the issue. Article 24, if passed, would have encouraged the Selectmen to keep the program going; article 25, on the other hand, would have urged the Selectmen to end the program immediately. (Some of us were amused by the possibility that both articles might pass, but Town Moderator Sandy Gadsby reminded us before considering the articles that Town Meeting is usually consistent on our votes.)

Before Town Meeting, I took the pulse of my constituents to see where they stood on the cameras. I called two friends of ours who are married to each other and I asked my wife. Feedback was mixed, so once again I found myself having to listen to my own conscience on the issue.

And in the end, for me the tipping point was an editorial in the Brookline TAB: Editorial: Camera pilot program too risky. I urge you to go read it in full, but for me the money quote was this:


"Even if the study committee were to give the program high grades based on its mandate — and it might — it will never satisfy what we feel is the fundamental question: If a free society is monitored from a remote location, is it still free?"


I can still see the point of supporting the cameras, I have to admit; with the recent economic downturn, we seem to be experiencing more crime in Brookline. (If not, it just feels that way.) But the TAB got me thinking about the definition of a free society. And in the end, I have to say that I do worry about the tiny bits of freedom that are eroding in the wake of our new technologies. (The convenience of Google Maps, for example, has to be weighed against the knowledge that anyone on this planet can now easily see the plants I choose to put in my windows.) Stopping the cameras now is incumbent on us, because even if we trust the watchmen of today, we have no idea who will take on the role of the watchmen of tomorrow.

Afternote:

As usual, the Brookline TAB's reporting of the events of Town Meeting is comprehensive. Here are some good articles I recommend.

How did Town Meeting vote?

Last night's capsule Town Meeting

Brookline Town Meeting rejects surveillance cameras

Comments

Have you read David Brin's The Transparent Society? In it, he essentially argues that the cameras are coming anyway, so all of their data should just be made available to the general public, so that we can keep an eye on the watchmen as well. I've only read the first chapter, which he made available for free on his web site, but the link seems to be broken now.

Then there's the story of the British rock group that performed in front of various security cameras, and then got the footage from the police via Britain's equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, and thus were able to put together a music video on the cheap!
I read it when it first came out, and I have an autographed hardcover copy. I'm not sure I agree with him, but he gave me a lot to think about.

As for the British rock group – great story!
I appreciated this post. I'm not sure exactly where I stand on this issue either. One the one hand, friends of my parents who have lived in London for decades and have talked of retiring there no longer want to because the average Londoner appears on security cameras an average of 400 times a day, and they see that as an unlivable infringement of their freedom. On the other hand, I suspect the cameras are on their way in, too, and given that, it's probably wise to find ways to make the images available to the public (as your previous commenter describes).

Keep us posted (literally) on the continuing saga.
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