Thursday, June 4, 2009

Do we want a surveillance society?

On the evening of June 2, the Brookline Town Meeting voted by a large margin to reject the town’s Department of Homeland Security-funded surveillance cameras. The vote was the culmination of a vigorous grassroots campaign, with the ACLU of Massachusetts joining Brookline residents to raise public consciousness about the privacy implications of the cameras. Below, Brookline resident John Moon explains why he opposes the camera installation in remarks directed to Town Meeting members.

I am John Moon [of] Brookline, Massachusetts. I am an Emeritus Professor of History, whose specialty is the history of chemical and biological weapons.

I am centering my argument against the placement and operation of surveillance cameras in a national context. The impact of 9/11 and subsequent actions taken by the federal government to confront an existing threat cannot be isolated from actions taken or proposed throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

After 9/11, speculation was rife in government circles that this horrible event was the first wave of a succession of attacks that would inevitably culminate in chemical, biological, radiological or even nuclear strikes against our country. This fear was understandable at the time of the event and in the early months that followed. However, the persistence of this deep fear led to an overreaction, close to panic: to warrantless surveillance, to enhanced interrogation techniques.

Let us recall that the surveillance cameras, which are now being promoted as crime preventing, crime solving measures, were initially justified as a means to help evacuations in response to a catastrophic event.

Since 9/11, countless communities have carried out exercises so that their first responders will be better prepared to deal with a terrorist strike. In no case, as far as I am aware, have these tests carried out evacuations beyond the local area. In the case of a biological attack, for example, evacuations would be counter productive and cameras would not help. They cannot detect invisible weapons.

Let us recall that the gift giver of these cameras is the Department of Homeland Security, an agency not especially sensitive to privacy rights. It is this agency, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, that is fostering the fusion centers spread throughout the nation. On 16 October 2006, Michael Chertoff, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, defined the purpose of these fusion centers as a way to create “a national network of intelligence fusion…to support state and local decision makers, chiefs of police, and state and local intelligence officials.”

Today, more than forty fusion centers are spread throughout the nation, fifteen more are planned. One of these fusion centers is located in Maynard, Massachusetts. In the goals cited on its website, there is no mention of the need to protect privacy while strengthening security.

And will these cameras make us safer? Last year, my wife and I spent two months in London while I did research in the U.K. National Archives.

Great Britain has an extensive surveillance network: London alone has 200,000 cameras, and more than 4 million cameras have been deployed throughout the country. It is estimated that there is one camera for every 14 people and the average Briton is seen by 300 cameras per day.

On the first day that we arrived in London, I was pick-pocketed in the center of the city. In spite of the many cameras the thief was not caught.

This world of surveillance is being put in place at a time when our national laws have not caught up with a technological revolution that is accelerating. Knowledge is power. There are those who have sought to create Total Information Awareness systems for the use of the national government. As Lord Acton reminds us: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

What is now in place will be surpassed in the near future.

Good news: Boston School Committee votes to wait on rezoning

As media outlets including WBUR reported today, the Boston School Committee voted last night to delay a plan that would have limited busing and school choice.

It's an issue the ACLU of Massachusetts has been working on. Here's what Amy Reichbach, our Racial Justice Fellow, has to say about it:

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson announced some months ago that she would be proposing that the School Committee adopt a plan that would change the way students are assigned to their schools. The ACLU of Massachusetts was approached by community activists concerned about this plan. With the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association, we developed a set of recommendations that we sent to Superintendent Johnson and the School Committee in advance of last night’s School Committee meeting, where Johnson was scheduled to present her proposal. Our general conclusion regarding the “Five-Zone Plan” is that the plan, which is designed around cost-cutting rather than ensuring access to quality schools for all Boston Public School children, will exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic inequities within BPS.

Our analysis of the plan and our recommendations appear online.

Executive Summary:

Full Report:

At the School Committee meeting last night, Superintendent Johnson and the School Committee agreed to postpone the School Committee’s vote on Johnson’s proposal, which had been scheduled to take place on June 24th, in order to permit her to make some revisions responsive to concerns raised by community members and advocates. We were pleased to see that she intends to consider many of objections raised both by us and by parent and educator activists to the Five-Zone Plan as she goes forward, Of course, it will take ongoing involvement to ensure that any plan she introduces ensures access to quality and innovate schools for families living in several of Boston’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods; ensures access to the most successful model of educating English Language Learners; employs racial and socioeconomic data technologies that could be used for rezoning, school reform and resource allocation purposes; and continues to provide transportation to students to the extent that transportation is required for choice to be meaningful. We are hopeful that our recommendations will help to guide future discussion of the plan.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Brookline Town Meeting votes against surveillance cameras


Brookline Rejects Homeland Security Surveillance Cameras

ACLU worked with Brookline PAX, local residents on risks of increased government surveillance

June 3, 2009

Sarah Wunsch, Staff Attorney, 617-482-3170, x323,
Christopher Ott, Communications Director, 617-482-3170 x322,

BROOKLINE -- The Brookline Town Meeting voted late last night to adopt a resolution against the use of police surveillance cameras provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The resolution calls on the Board of Selectmen to halt a one-year trial use of the cameras and to take them down.

This is the first time that a town meeting -- an institution of local New England democratic government, with more than two hundred members -- has debated and rejected government surveillance cameras in a town’s public spaces. Brookline now joins Cambridge, where the City Council voted 9-0 in February to oppose the installation of eight surveillance cameras obtained with the same DHS grant.

“We are grateful to town meeting members in Brookline who understood that a message needed to be sent, that America should not be a place where the government is watching us as we go about our activities in public,” said Sarah Wunsch, a Brookline resident and staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. The ACLU worked with Brookline PAX and concerned residents to educate the community about the increasing government surveillance of lawful activities and the creation of government databases on vast numbers of Americans.

State Representative Frank Smizik of Brookline spoke in favor of the resolution at Town Meeting, saying that “Brookline has always been a leader” and that this was a time when that leadership was needed to protect our values as a free society.

The Town Meeting vote followed months of public hearings and debates, with many residents objecting to the town’s acceptance of the Bush administration’s offer of millions of dollars for digital interlinked cameras to watch our public places. Although the cameras were justified by town officials as “free” and as needed to help with evacuations, prevent crime or terrorism, or aid in prosecutions, studies provide no evidence that the cameras are effective. Rather, improved lighting and community policing have been shown effective in preventing and solving crime.

The cameras were intended to form part of a network funded with a $4.6 million Department of Homeland Security grant linking nine Greater Boston communities.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Brookline Tab opposes surveillance cameras

The Brookline Tab opposes Department of Homeland Security video cameras. We agree.

Monday, June 1, 2009

"Time Will Justify Our Strength"

Katrina vanden Heuvel, the keynote speaker at our 28th annual Bill of Rights Dinner last week, posted the text of her remarks "Time Will Justify Our Strength" on her blog at The Nation.