Put a Lid on It
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.
But DeWitt and her fellow selectmen didn’t want to overreact, so they voted to keep the cameras but require the police to deliver quarterly reports detailing the cameras’ use, with another vote required in 12 months. Resistance to the surveillance weakened after a horrific kidnapping and rape was solved with the help of one of the cameras, which captured video of the suspects’ truck circling the area.
Nevertheless, a “loud minority” of townspeople continued to protest the cameras, according to Wilder. So last September, the selectmen voted to restrict the police department’s usage of them. Starting in January, the cameras were restricted to operating between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. as well as during emergencies and large public events like the Boston Marathon. Still, some townspeople were skeptical that the police department would abide by the regulation. How could they really be sure the cameras weren’t operating without their knowledge?
That’s when Brookline Police Chief Daniel O’Leary reached out to Cirker, after learning that Marshfield, about 30 miles southeast, had implemented Situ-Cam to protect city employees. There, city employees are provided a wireless instant alert button that’s tied to Situ-Cam-protected surveillance cameras. If they find themselves in danger, they push the button and the eyelids open, instantly providing police with video of the area as well as a description of who pressed the button, their picture, contact information, and location.
The eyelids, according to Cirker, make it crystal clear to residents that Big Brother isn’t watching during the daytime restricted hours. “And that really made civil liberties groups comfortable with this technology,” he said. “It wasn’t just software controlled. There was this hardware-eyelid mask that was literally bulletproof in terms of privacy abuse.”
To further ensure accountability and pacify privacy concerns, the SituCon system also provides an automatic e-mail alert to the Board of Selectmen, the chair of Camera Oversight Committee, Chief O’Leary, the superintendent, and Wilder when an officer overrides the system and opens the eyelids during the day. After the event, Wilder then e-mails the same group a description of the circumstances that led police to override the system.
According to Cirker, the SituCam system cost Brookline $33,000. Installation cost another $12,000, says the police department and was paid for with a DHS grant. The return on that investment was that in June, the Board of Selectmen voted once again to keep the cameras for another year.
“Before our technology, you had to pick one or the other: privacy or protection,” says Cirker. “Now they have both.”
The creative eyelid technology “saved the cameras,” says Wilder, “because it was a matter of coming up with an acceptable solution or the cameras were going to be removed.”