D.C. Forging Surveillance Network

Darrell Darnell, head of the D.C. homeland security agency, said the city is doing what it can to respect privacy while improving public safety.
Darrell Darnell, head of the D.C. homeland security agency, said the city is doing what it can to respect privacy while improving public safety.
By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008

The D.C. government is launching a system today that would tie together thousands of city-owned video cameras, but authorities don't yet have the money to complete the high-tech network or privacy rules in place to guide it.

The system will feature round-the-clock monitoring of the closed-circuit video systems run by nine city agencies. In the first phase, about 4,500 cameras trained on schools, public housing, traffic and government buildings will feed into a central office at the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. Hundreds more will be added this year.

By making all those images available under one roof, officials hope to increase efficiency and improve public safety and emergency response. But civil libertarians and D.C. Council members say the network is being rushed into place without sufficient safeguards to protect privacy.

"The planning has been wholly lacking," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, who plans to hold a hearing on the project.

With its vast reach, the system underscores how security cameras have multiplied since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. By this fall, the District will have installed about 5,600 closed-circuit cameras, about triple the number it had in 2001. Tens of thousands of other cameras have popped up at monuments, banks, stores and other places.

Elsewhere, New York has announced a network of 3,000 public and private cameras to protect Lower Manhattan. Chicago's emergency management office will soon have access to more than 6,000 cameras run by schools, police and other agencies.

The boom has been fueled by technological advances that make it easy to install cameras and search video. But U.S. cities -- and D.C. government agencies -- have varying rules on the cameras' use.

The D.C. attorney general's office is working on a policy to protect privacy rights, but it will not be completed by the system's launch, said Darrell Darnell, head of the city's homeland security agency. The agencies involved will follow their own rules in the meantime, he said. They vary on such matters as how long images are kept.

"We're doing everything we can, humanly possible, to make sure we are respecting the rights and privacy concerns" of residents and visitors, Darnell said.

Civil liberties activists and some politicians worry about abuse.

"The new system is excessive in scope, with absolutely no safeguards for individual liberties," said Corey Owens of the Constitution Project, a bipartisan nonprofit group that wrote to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) expressing concern.

"Just to go forward without any real thought about byproduct effects and unintended consequences, I don't think is a good idea," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

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