Cambridge halts activation of surveillance cameras

By David Abel
Globe Staff / February 4, 2009
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The Cambridge City Council has halted the activation of eight surveillance cameras in the city out of concern about who would have access to the images, what they would be used for, and possible invasions of privacy.

The unanimous vote on Monday night came after the cameras had already been installed along Memorial Drive, by Fresh Pond, near Mount Auburn Hospital, and in Harvard Square as well as Porter, Inman, Kendall, and Central squares.

The cameras are part of a controversial surveillance network designed to link Cambridge with Boston and seven other communities. The cameras were paid for with a $4.6 million grant from the US Department of Homeland Security.

"The City Council is not convinced that the proposed benefits will outweigh the potential risks," said Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons in a telephone interview yesterday. "We don't have enough information about how the cameras would be operated, how they'll be governed, who has access to the data they collect, and how the residents of this city can be assured that the use of these cameras will not be abused. We feel there hasn't been enough public discussion about them."

Simmons said law enforcement officials told city officials that the cameras would be used in Cambridge to monitor traffic on evacuation routes.

Cambridge police officials did not return calls for comment.

Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said state officials had requested the money.

"I'm not aware of other circumstances" involving other municipalities refusing to activate surveillance cameras, she said.

Cambridge's vote was the first in the state, said officials at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

"Under the circumstances, when there was so little actually known about how they would be used, we felt that it was really important [that] people understood the implications of how this technology could not be fully controlled," said Nancy Murray, director of education for ACLU Massachusetts. "It's potentially liable to all sorts of abuse, from First Amendment rights to demonstrate and hold vigils, to people's privacy rights."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, hundreds of communities across the country have installed surveillance cameras funded by Homeland Security.

Law enforcement officials say the cameras help them keep an eye on potential targets of terrorism, manage traffic during an emergency, and investigate street crime. But residents worry that the cameras could also be used, Big Brother-style, to follow people going about their daily lives.

Cameras were first put up on roads, bridges, and buildings in Boston, Chelsea, Everett, and Revere just before the Democratic National Convention in 2004. In the second phase, plans called for the original group to get additional cameras and for Cambridge, Quincy, Winthrop, Somerville, and Brookline to receive new cameras.

In Brookline, after a heated debate, selectmen voted 3-2 in mid-January to give them a one-year trial, Murray said.

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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