Armey, ACLU Jointly Declare War Against Surveillance Cameras

July 7, 2008 - 7:03 PM

( - Even though most of the time, House Republican Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas) and the American Civil Liberties Union are on opposite sides of issues, both on Wednesday issued a joint statement calling on state and local governments to stop using surveillance cameras.

"Over the past several days, a troubling expansion in the way technology is being used in the surveillance of ordinary Americans has come to light. In response, we are today joining together to call on all state and local governments to stop using these dangerous technologies now before privacy in America is so diminished that it becomes nothing more than a fond memory," the joint statement said.

Armey said he would ask the General Accounting Office to study the extent of federal government funding of surveillance cameras. In addition, he will ask the relevant House committees to hold hearings on law enforcement use of surveillance technologies. The ACLU said they are in complete support of Armey's requests.

The statement concluded, "The threats to privacy in America are all too real. We believe the privacy risk outweighs any benefits that these devices may offer. It's time to take notice of what has happened to privacy in America today."

Recently, Tampa, Fla., officials said they would begin using the cameras to scan individuals in Ybor City, the city's entertainment district. Virginia Beach, Va., city officials also said this week that it will seek state funding to use similar cameras in some of its oceanfront areas.

The Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles also said this week they plan to move ahead with a plan that was recently approved by the state's legislature to create a database that contains computerized three-dimensional facial maps of residents that apply for drivers licenses.

Beginning next summer, the cameras that photograph every applicant for a driver's license will also map facial characteristics and plug them into a database.

The software program will compare the new photos to those on file and signal when there is a mismatch, said Dorothy Dalquist, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue in an interview with Denver's Rocky Mountain News.

The intent, she said, is to prevent people from obtaining licenses in other motorists' names and using them to defraud individuals, banks and merchants.

Colorado's financial institutions lose more than $11 million a year to scams that often involve use of bogus driver's licenses, said Barbara Walker, executive officer of the Independent Bankers of Colorado.

She called facial-recognition technology "a tremendous step into the realm of trying to combat identity theft."

But privacy watchdogs said the public should beware.

"I wonder what it will take for people to recognize that this is absolutely outrageous. We are losing all semblance of personal privacy," said Sue Armstrong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.

Walker said the new state law mandating the facial-recognition program contains protections to keep the system from being misused.

Driver's licenses issued through the new program also will contain an invisible marker enabling a merchant, for example, to detect a fake license with a simple scanning device. Both innovations are being funded with a 60-cent fee added to driver's licenses as of this week, Dalquist said.

Meanwhile, David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, commended Armey Wednesday for taking a stand and believes conservatives should place privacy at the top of their legislative agendas.

"Some have made fun of Armey's attacks on the spreading use of video surveillance to catch red-light runners, but he seems to sense something that others don't, the road to the Brave New World is one we are traveling. The cameras used to catch red-light runners today can be used for more serious surveillance tomorrow," Keene wrote in an opinion piece that appeared in Wednesday's "The Hill" newspaper.

Keene also criticized Virginia Beach's plan to install surveillance cameras in many of its beach areas.

"The trade-off: privacy and freedom for security. It is entirely possible that by scrutinizing every face in Virginia Beach, the authorities will make the city safer, but it will be a joyless safety as everyone who appears in public knows they are being watched by, dare we say it, Big Brother," Keene said.

"We are not so far down the road to trading freedom for security that the trend cannot be stopped or even reversed," he said.

"The Supreme Court just a few weeks ago fired a warning shot across the bow of the state by limiting the use of new technology to invade people's homes, and Armey is trying to get conservatives to put privacy at the top of their agenda. A lot will depend on whether he succeeds," Keene concluded.