Web PM

More spy cameras pop up in public

Lisa Hoffman / Scripps Howard News Service | August 10 2006

In an unprecedented proliferation of public spying, government is casting its watchful eye on millions of ordinary Americans through largely unregulated surveillance cameras trained on public spaces throughout the nation.

A Scripps Howard News Service tally found that at least 200 towns and cities in 37 states now employ video cameras -- or are in the process of doing so -- to watch sidewalks, parks, schools, buses, buildings and similar locales.

More troubling to civil liberties and camera-use proponents alike is the even greater absence of local, state or federal laws that specifically govern police-video surveillance of Americans, suspected of no crime, as they go about their daily business.

To Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector Thomas Nestel III, who played a major role in his city's referendum vote last month on the installation of video cameras, the lack of oversight is an ill-advised invitation to trouble.

"Forging ahead with reckless abandon by providing no written direction, no supervision, no training and no regulating legislation creates a recipe for disaster," Nestel wrote in a March research thesis on the phenomenon.

While headlines and congressional and court hearings are examining the CIA and other agencies' eavesdropping and Internet snooping programs, the coast-to-coast spread of public spy cameras is occurring largely on the periphery of the nation's attention, even though it brings with it a catalog of "Big Brother" privacy concerns.

The American Civil Liberties Union and a handful of other watchdogs have occasionally sounded the alarm, but now are largely focused on other issues.

The lack of attention worries former Rep. Dick Armey, who, when he was the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, was an outspoken opponent of law-enforcement-by-video camera.

"It seems like we need to be giving surveillance to the surveillance," said the Texas Republican, now chairman of the Washington-based political advocacy group Freedom Works.

Meanwhile, the presence of government-run cameras is growing by the month, thanks to technology advances that are cutting the cost of the systems and to a bountiful spigot of federal anti-terror funds available to pay for them.

Also expanding is the capability of the cameras and the increasing sweep of their focus.

Part of the reason for the lack of congressional or other government oversight is the public's general approval of the use of such cameras, and the lack of attention addressed to the technology's pitfalls, experts say.


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