THE MAGAZINE

Put a Lid on It

By Matthew Harwood
In the summer of 2009, the residents of Brookline, Massachusetts, revolted against their police department’s installation of surveillance cameras throughout the town. But police were eventually able to win over the townspeople thanks to a new privacy-protecting technology that addressed the public’s concerns. 
 
The camera’s savior was Port Washington, New York-based SituCon Systems, Inc., and its SituCam solution, which provides software-controlled mechanical eyelids for surveillance cameras. SituCon President Seth Cirker, a father of three, says he originally developed SituCam as part of an emergency notification solution for school classrooms after continuously hearing about incidents of school violence.
 
He describes the eyelids as the perfect compromise for Brookline, a local government searching for a middle ground between privacy and public-safety. During the day, Brookline residents can look up at the town’s 11 cameras, see the eyelids closed, and know they aren’t being surreptitiously watched. At night, police “wake up” the cameras and have a surveillance tool that can help them solve crimes.
 
SituCam also provides a public-safety exception. When an emergency occurs, vetted police officers have the ability to click an icon on their desktop to open the eyelids, immediately gain situational awareness, and begin recording what’s occurring at 11 intersections across town.
 
The technology offered a way to end a battle between Brookline’s privacy and public-safety advocates that began in 2008 when the Metro Boston Homeland Security Region—made up of Brookline and eight other cities and towns—voted to use Department of Homeland Security Urban Area Security Initiative funds to construct a camera network for monitoring evacuation routes out of the metropolitan area in case of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.
 
Later that year the Brookline Police Department began construction of their portion of the camera network. By February of 2009, the cameras were live as part of a one-year pilot program, according to Scott Wilder, the department’s director of technology. The pilot program, however, was not popular with townsfolk, and after about three months of operation, the Brookline Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly to take down the cameras in a June nonbinding resolution.
 
Selectman Betsy DeWitt, chairwoman of the town’s five-member executive body, says that some members of the community believed the cameras could be used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to spy on them. Others were concerned that the data would be shared with law enforcement officials in many jurisdictions, raising the potential for inappropriate use.
 
“Under the best circumstances, information can be distributed for legitimate reasons, but other people may not be as careful about keeping it under secure control as we might be,” says DeWitt, previously an opponent of the cameras and still skeptical.
 

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