Surveillance with privacy in mind

One town mollifies advocates with policy/technology implementation
Thursday, July 22, 2010

BROOKLINE, Mass.—When DHS, in 2008, made money available to first responders here looking to plan for any sort of disaster that might lead to an evacuation of nearby Boston, they jumped on it, installing a surveillance system to monitor major throughways.

Then came Town Meeting, that famous form of participatory government that still thrives here in New England: "They voted to take the cameras down," said Betsy DeWitt, chairwoman of the Brookline Board of Selectmen. "The interesting thing was that they didn't have the authority to do that," she chuckled, "but they spoke loud and clear."

Now, however, two years later, she said, "we've gone from a flat-out, ‘take them down!,' to a willingness to accept them with, let's say, protections in place. And that is very significant."

How has Brookline come so far in its willingness to accept public surveillance? A lot of hard work by a citizen oversight committee that developed policies for the use of the surveillance system that made sense for the community, with a helping hand from the Constitution Project and technology provided by SituCon, which, among other things, provides a physical lens cover that opens when the system is in use and closes in an obvious way when the cameras are not operational.

"The covers are reassuring," DeWitt said. "You can see the cameras are not on, and that alleviates concerns that the cameras could be remotely controlled and that the operator might manipulate them into residents' windows or something. So having the covers makes it abundantly clear that they can't be used for other than safety purposes."

Policy mandates that the cameras only be on between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., or during an emergency situation, at which point first responders can activate the system—triggering a text message that is sent to the entire Board of Selectmen. Further, there is a monitor set up in Town Hall where anyone can come in off the street and see exactly what's coming through the feed from the cameras—"It's a good thing," said DeWitt, "that most of the time it's very boring."

Seth Cirker, CEO of SituCon, said it's been interesting to watch these kinds of situations play out as he's brought his technology to market. Not a "security guy," Cirker invented this solution—with the closing lens covers and software that's very customizable for controlling when the cameras are on and who's watching—to address both the mounting security threats to schools and municipalities and the very real and genuine privacy concerns held by the general public.

He's already seeing staunch opponents of video surveillance, like those here in Brookline, become some of his best evangelists, he said. "This technology never existed," he said. "It's a different argument now." Are the lens covers as much for public relations as anything else? "They're redundant," he admitted, as the software alone can control when the cameras are on or off and who has access, "but they're crystal clear. The teachers or town workers know there's no chance they're being monitored. The teachers can look up and know there's no way they're being watched." SituCon even has the ability to automatically launch a WiFi environment in the case of an emergency, when the cameras go live, that then shuts back down when the cameras are switched off, allowing, for example, first responders to arrive on site, log into the surveillance system, and know right away what's happening inside.

The lens covers and software work with many camera types (it was a Bosch system here in Brookline), and while SituCon did the integration here as one of its first big customers, Cirker said the company is looking for dealers and partners to help make the technology more widely available and known.

DeWitt, who was certainly one of those initially opposed to the surveillance system, said the hard work has paid off in a surveillance system that's paying dividends. It has already been used to capture two rapists (their truck was identified from video and forensic evidence was gathered within 24 hours) and clear a good cop's name (he lost control of a vehicle during a chase, but video showed it wasn't his fault). "I'm not sure we've converted all the ACLU folks," she said, "and some of them are my good friends, but I think it's recognized now that it's possible to set up safeguards that everyone can live with."

However, she noted, "at the first evidence of abuse, we're going to lose that trust. It's our obligation to make sure that never happens."