The Department of Homeland Security is handing over millions of dollars to local governments to buy high-tech surveillance camera networks to combat terrorism.
The cameras can keep streets and parks under constant observation and help thwart terrorist attacks or track down perpetrators. But privacy rights advocates say America is becoming a "surveillance society” where legal activities can be continually monitored.
The department won’t say exactly how much money is being spent on the surveillance systems. But an investigation by the Boston Globe found that at least tens and probably hundreds of millions of dollars are being spread around the country for those systems as part of Homeland Security grants.
In the past month alone, St. Paul, Minn., received a $1.2 million grant for 60 cameras to be positioned downtown, and Pittsburgh got $2.58 million for 83 cameras, the Globe reports. Big cities including New York and Chicago are building large-scale surveillance systems that could also link thousands of privately owned security cameras.
A project launched in October 2004 to install 1,000 closed-circuit cameras with 3,000 sensors in the New York City subway system is expected to be completed in 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier. The city already has more than 3,000 cameras in housing projects.
Even small towns are getting a share of the Homeland Security Department’s money. For example, Liberty, Kans. – population 95 – got a grant to install a surveillance camera in its park.
However, critics say the "proliferation of cameras could mean that Americans will feel less free because legal public behavior – attending a political rally, entering a doctor’s office, or even joking with friends in a park – will leave a permanent record, retrievable by authorities at any time,” according to the Globe.
But an ABC News/Washington Post poll in July found that 75 percent of those surveyed approved of an increased use of surveillance systems to combat terrorism.
And Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke said the surveillance systems are a valuable tool and "we will encourage their use in the future.”
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