A city and a school district decided this week that surveillance cameras are friend, not foe, and that we better get used to being watched.
The city is St. Albans, whose police chief said, “Where we have utilized video surveillance, we have negated criminal activity.” He didn’t say if crime had moved elsewhere, out of the watch of cameras and out of his jurisdiction.
The school district is Harwood Union, in Duxbury, whose superintendent said students support cameras in their school running 24/7 because none of them showed up Wednesday at a board meeting to protest.
The St. Albans chief -- whose city has been using cameras in another park, at the city pool, and in a courthouse parking lot -- has recommended the city council develop a policy for proper use of the video system and storage of the files.
Good idea, but bad timing. Policies should be discussed and adopted before citizens are subject to the equivalent of someone looking over their shoulder -- not after they’ve already been followed around public places.
A Harwood School Board member argued that video surveillance is a fact of life. “We’ve decided as a society it’s OK that we’re being surveilled. And our young people will get more used to that,” he said.
Over the last dozen years, an array of high-tech surveillance tools has come into use in Vermont. Many of these tools – including some video surveillance systems – have been purchased with federal Homeland Security grants.
In fact, over the last dozen years, Homeland Security has given Vermont police agencies $100 million to buy surveillance tools, weapons, and other equipment. It’s been in the name of national security.
Vermont used to be a state where both the notion and the reality of privacy were true. That is no longer the case. Without our realizing it, we have become a society where we are being watched. We can hardly go anywhere without the creation of a trail of digital information pinpointing our whereabouts at nearly any time, day after day.
And this all happened one camera at a time, one automated license plate reader at a time, one facial recognition software system at a time, or one other high-tech tool at a time, sold to authorities who argued this was all for our own good.
We are not far from the day when areas not surveilled will be seen as lawless areas, and people who send encrypted messages or don’t carry a cell phone (which can be used as a tracking device) will be seen as suspect.
If -- as the school board member said -- we get used to it, that’s exactly where we’ll be.