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Cameras everywhere

Red light cameras get all the attention, but there are a lot more cameras in Houston. This story about the city’s network of surveillance cameras that have been installed by the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security gives some details.

So far, drawing on $14 million in federal grants, the office has installed 330 cameras, of which 266 are providing live feeds to the city network. That network is also tied into 260 cameras installed inside City Hall and other city buildings. TranStar cameras on freeways and Metro’s rail-line surveillance are also hooked up to the system.

Next stop is reaching an agreement to tie into security cameras monitoring streets in the Texas Medical Center, officials said.

There are cameras in the Westchase District, too.

Houston’s journey into the ranks of cities that keep a close watch on their public spaces has been a gradual one – and reviews are mixed.

Civil rights activists view the network with suspicion, while others believe it is a worthwhile use of modern technology in a time of tightened budgets.

Mark Bennett, a criminal defense attorney and former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer Association, is concerned not only about privacy issues but the potential for abuse.

“I don’t like the government having cameras on me every chance they can get,” Bennett said. “Human beings should have privacy in their lives, and they shouldn’t have to go to seek it out. It should be presumed that our affairs are our own, rather than the government’s. We start to feel like pets in cages with Big Brother looking down on us all the time.”

He believes there is a vast risk that city government, or individual employees, could use the system to spy for their own purposes.

“Imagine a police officer who is concerned about what his wife does during the day, and has his buddies set up the cameras to watch her,” Bennett said. “Having government employees abuse government power for personal purposes is far from unheard of in this town.”

Elsewhere, too. For better or worse, this is the world we live in, and barring any legislative intervention – which would require a sea change in voter attitudes – it’s not going away any time soon. There are benefits to the cameras and there are costs, and so far public opinion sides with those who think the benefits outweigh those costs. I share Bennett’s concerns, but I don’t see anything changing. At the very least, if we’re going to go down this road I’d prefer for it to happen after a thorough public discussion, instead of it just happening behind the scenes while no one is really paying attention, but again I don’t see that happening. There’s plenty of people who want to make red light cameras an electoral issue, and more power to them for trying, but until there’s an equivalent mass making an issue out of all these other cameras, why shouldn’t the Office of Public Safety keep doing what it’s doing?

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One Comment

  1. being constantly surveilled goes against my nature, I am a law abiding citizen who should be free to conduct my life with the least amount of government intrusion as possible. That being said, I realize this inclination has diminished in the general public, largely from the threats of terrorism so rightly or wrongly this is just a fact of life anymore and I guess I am just going to have to lump it. There is a great potential for abuse, but at least these cameras shouldn’t be associated with an increase in accidents, decriminalize a traditionally criminal act and any footage used to prosecute someone would be subject to rules of evidence in an open court.

    Your buddy Andy Taylor is stomping his feet again, looks like mayor Parker is going to put a resolution up for a council vote on turning off the cameras. I think this is an attempt to share the responsibility for any negative actions, either spending millions to break the contract or as a reaffirmation of turning the cameras back on. Smart political move. At least we will see exactly where the council stands and if those that have said they didn’t think the cameras should be turned on will actually have the courage to pull the trigger. Any vote to turn them off again needs to come with a clear path to actually removing the cameras, until they are actually down they can be flipped back on at anytime including right after the election.