City Council Opposes Surveillance Cameras

The Cambridge City Council voted last night to oppose the use of Homeland Security surveillance cameras in eight locations in the city, citing concerns about the preservations of civil liberties.

The cameras, which were installed last year but have yet to be activated, were funded by a federal Homeland Security grant program.

The cameras were intended to monitor traffic during emergency evacuations, according to City Councillor Craig A. Kelley.

But during the public comment segment of the meeting, citizens suggested that the potential civil liberties threats posed by the cameras outweighed any potential benefits.

“They are the local manifestation of the closing down of our privacy,” said Nancy Ryan, former president of the Mass. American Civil Liberties Union.

Ryan was one of several ACLU associates who spoke at the meeting, which drew a crowd that filled the room and overflowed into the hallway.

Other residents brought up the possibility that the cameras might have a detrimental effect on residents’ first amendment rights.

Approximately 180 cameras have been installed in the Boston metropolitan area, according to Donald E. McGough, director of the Boston Office of Emergency Preparedness.

As of last month, McGough stated that $4.6 million had been invested since 2004 to install the network of cameras in the area.

Although the program gives municipality police commissioners control of the cameras in their district, towns can grant the Boston Office of Emergency Preparedness access to the footage.

Many residents said they were concerned about how the recordings would be used—and by whom.

“The reality is that we cannot control what the federal government will do with this information down the road,” resident Gail Epstein said at the meeting.

At last night’s meeting, Councillor Marjorie C. Decker emphasized that the cameras were installed by a private company hired by the Boston Office, without the involvement of the Cambridge City Council.

It remains unclear what effect the council’s resolution will have on the surveillance initiative.

In Brookline, a town that also falls under the program, local officials voted to proceed with the program on a trial basis, according to Nancy Daly, chairwoman of the Brookline Selectmen.

“I would imagine we can stop it...It’s a matter of the Brookline police department voluntarily going along with it,” Daly said in a phone interview with The Crimson.

Councillor Craig A. Kelley said that the Council should have been more vigilant in monitoring Homeland Security efforts in the city.

Kelley said that “we the council should have known to press more aggressively” when asking the City Manager about Homeland Security funding.

However, not all councillors backed the resolution.

Councillor Tim Toomey said that he did not think there had been enough public participation in the night’s decision-making process.

“Stores, banks, residents all have cameras. I don’t see anybody raising concerns about those cameras,” Toomey said.

—Staff writer Danella H. Debel can be reached at debel@fas.harvard.edu. —Staff writer Sarah J. Howland can be reached at showland@fas.harvard.edu.