Controversy Grows Over Police Video Surveillance

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

Capitol Hill ( - Video surveillance is the most effective use of limited resources to prevent future terrorist attacks, according to law enforcement and intelligence officials. But according to civil libertarians and some members of Congress, it's just the newest way for government to violate citizens' privacy rights.

The National Park Service acknowledged at a hearing of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the District of Columbia Friday that it plans to begin using video monitoring equipment at several national monuments.

"Within the next six months, the National Park Service plans to have CCTV [Closed-Circuit Television] installed at six sites," said John Parsons, associate regional director for lands, resources, and planning for the National Park Service's National Capital Region.

"The National Park Service (NPS) plans to use cameras monitored by the U.S. Park Police only in public areas where there is no expectation of privacy," he added.

NPS will spend between $2 - 3 million to install cameras at the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam and Korean War Veterans Memorials, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.

The announcement follows the discovery that Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has been conducting video surveillance with a network of twelve cameras position around the city looking at national monuments such as the U.S. Capitol and the White House, as well as high pedestrian traffic areas such as Union Station and the National Mall, and major roadways.

The MPD Joint Operations Command Center also has the capability to monitor video feeds from airborne cameras in helicopters operated by D.C. Police and the U.S. Park Police, along with video feeds from area schools, but only with prior permission and active involvement from school officials.

D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey says the cameras are necessary not just to protect the residents of the District and commuters who work there, but also the 20 million tourists who visit the city annually.

"During times of heightened alert, the video cameras give us a clear, real-time view of these potential [terrorist] targets, without having to dedicate police officers on the ground to this type of monitoring activity," Ramsey told the subcommittee.

The D.C. Department of Public Works has developed preliminary plans to install a network of 700 cameras throughout the city, which would be accessible through the Joint Operations Command Center.

The District Traffic Department also wants 100 cameras to help monitor and control traffic congestion in the city. Those cameras, too, would be available to police under the existing plans, as would cameras already in place in the city's subway system.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Constance Morella (R-Md.) is afraid that, once such a comprehensive network of cameras is in place, police will be unable to avoid the temptation to abuse it.

"It's the old camel's nose story," Morella told Ramsey.

"Once the camel gets his nose under the tent, pretty soon the rest of the camel will be under the tent. Once the police have cameras that can see anywhere in the city, pretty soon the police will be using those cameras to look anywhere in the city," she explained.

The American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area says police are overreacting to the terrorist threat.

"The use of video surveillance cameras goes far beyond a change in the style of life as we know it," said Johnny Barnes, ACLU-NCA executive director. "The use of these cameras will change the Constitution as we know it. The terrorists are winning."

He added, "We have Times Square in America, not Tiananmen Square."

Barnes warns that many people who say they support the use of surveillance cameras don't understand the power they are ceding to the government.

"So powerful are these cameras that they can film a belt-buckle from a mile away. So strong is surveillance technology that some [cameras] can allow the viewers to see through clothing," he added.

"Thermal imaging technology would enable cameras to capture images from behind closed doors and night vision [equipment] can bring images in complete darkness up to daylight level," Barnes said.

Ronald Goldstock, chairman of the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section Standards Committee, said elected officials must strike a careful balance between public safety and privacy rights before allowing law enforcement to proceed with video surveillance.

"There is a very real danger that, unregulated, they can lead to a stifling police presence affecting the innocent and the guilty alike," he warned.

While the ABA has developed guidelines for the use of video and other electronic surveillance tools, Goldstock was unaware of any law enforcement agencies that have adopted them.

Barnes maintains that cameras don't serve any purpose other than to amplify the ability of government to abuse the rights of citizens. But if cameras are going to be used for "mass surveillance," Barnes says mere departmental policies will not be enough to stop abuses.

"We need a body of laws, a set of regulations, not policy guidelines," he said, "just as we have for search warrants with criminal sanctions and civil penalties for abuse."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) agrees, and says the example the District of Columbia sets in formulating such laws will be important because the final result, "is likely to be imitated in other locations, especially in the many jurisdictions where there is a federal presence."

Norton noted that the National Park Service was the only one of six federal agencies invited to testify at the hearing that agreed to do so.

"Particularly since most of the new security needs or requirements are federal in origin," she said, "the least that Congress is entitled to is the kind of testimony that can be presented without injury to national security."

Norton announced that she would be introducing the Open Society with Security Act, along with a Senate companion, to authorize a presidential commission to analyze the use of electronic surveillance in the war against terrorism.

"American ingenuity is ready for the new challenge of winning the struggle against dangerous and dogmatic terrorism," she concluded, "while maintaining and enriching the free and open, democratic society that virtually defines our country."

The subcommittee requested reports from both D.C. and federal officials as to what guidelines are set in place for the use of surveillance cameras. Both Morella and Norton agreed that federal legislation to set minimum standards to protect individual privacy rights may be necessary.

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