D.C. Council moves to block surveillance camera project

Privacy advocates are applauding the recent decision by a key committee of the District of Columbia Council to eliminate nearly $900,000 in proposed funding for consolidating the operations of 5,200 city surveillance cameras.

Mayor Adrian Fenty unveiled the Video Interoperability for Public Safety program a month ago to connect the city's surveillance cameras to a single network with an advanced monitoring system to assist in prevention of and response to crimes, terrorism and other emergencies. He requested the $900,000 in funding for fiscal 2009.

But the D.C. Council's Public Safety and Judiciary Committee recently withheld $886,000 for the project and is planning a public hearing later this month to examine the proposal. Privacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), support those decisions.

The privacy groups have questioned whether the cameras are effective in preventing crime. They also have noted concerns about the possibility for privacy and civil rights infringement through the monitoring of political protests and rallies.

EPIC and the other groups have called for guidelines and legislation to address the effectiveness, purpose and use of the video surveillance; sharing and retention of the images recorded; and oversight mechanisms.

"There are many unanswered questions about the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency's plans to consolidate and centralize monitoring of thousands of video surveillance cameras. These questions need to be answered and proposed policies and procedures need to be prepared before the council should consider funding any new network," states a May 9 letter from the ACLU, electronic privacy group and Constitution Project. The letter is addressed to the city council.

The mayor, in an April 8 news release describing the surveillance program, said it would consolidate closed-circuit television operations in nine city agencies into the homeland security agency. The goal is an all-hazards system that operates around the clock.

The Office of the Chief Technology Officer will develop the technical framework for the program. It will include real-time and after-event video capture and storage.

Fenty also said the city will ensure that privacy concerns are addressed. "Our guidelines will ensure that cameras are installed at locations based on public safety needs, that the system is used only for the purpose of enhanced situational awareness and not for other labor or employee performance reasons, and that we have safeguards in place to prevent improper access to images and maintain records that show access and chain of custody for images," states the news release.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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