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Yes, They're Watching Every Move


January 22, 2008

I'm spooked by all these video cameras constantly watching us.

Forget the mall, the ATM, the casinos or the changing room at Marshall's, where we all know the cameras are rolling, digitally recording and storing your every move.

Call me neurotic, but have you seen those devices that look like spy cameras, installed above all the traffic lights at intersections in West Hartford Center?

Perhaps you've been down Park Street in Hartford recently and looked up at the surveillance cameras at every intersection, funded with a $400,000 grant from state taxpayers.

"I think it violates my civil rights," Jorge Figueroa told me when I stopped to talk with him at a hot dog cart near the corner of Park and Lawrence, not far from a camera's watchful eye. "I feel like somebody is watching."

You've got that right, Jorge. Increasingly and notably since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the federal Department of Homeland Security opened the funding spigot the government is filming and recording us.

It's all to make you feel more secure, but there's not much research that suggests cameras reduce crime.

The latest issue of Popular Mechanics confirmed my fears.

"There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week," James Vlahos writes in a feature story. "Americans are being watched, all of us, almost everywhere."

Just think how much fun all this makes going out on the town, knowing that some rent-a-cop or Homeland Security snoop is tracking you.

Bill Brown, co-founder and director of the Surveillance Camera Players, which monitors the growth of government video snooping, said all this should worry us.

"Right underneath our noses, our cities are changing," Brown said. "People know there are cameras, but they don't know how many there are."

A new feature film, "Look," tracks this obsessive videotaping trend, entirely from the perspective of a video surveillance camera.

"We're being captured on camera nearly 200 times a day, and those images are being digitized and archived forever," director Adam Rifkin told Newsweek. "Nobody's stopping to ask questions about its propriety."

A 2006 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union noted the installation of thousands of police cameras in New York since 9/11, creating "a massive video surveillance infrastructure ... with virtually no oversight."

In Stamford, where crime-fighting video cameras were approved last year, officials have promised careful supervision of citizen snooping. Downtown Hartford and New Haven are full of private and government cameras. In Newton, Mass., a liberal bastion, suspicious administrators installed cameras in the hallways of a high school. They were exposed by the school's student newspaper.

But in East Hartford, residents questioned a surveillance proposal and the town council tabled for now a $300,000 video camera initiative.

"It comes down to money and effectiveness. Put another officer or two on the beat instead," said Paul Roczynski, the local Republican Party chair who opposed the expanded surveillance. "Plus, it's a violation of people's privacy rights."

When I reached West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci, he told me to relax and assured me that Big Brother is not yet tuning in to Blue Back Square. The devices above the traffic lights, although they look like it, aren't cameras.

"It's a controller for the lights," monitoring traffic to prevent long backups, Strillacci said. "But it's not to say we couldn't retrofit it or something."

Does all this make you feel safer? It just makes me paranoid.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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