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Times Square bombing attempt shows limits of surveillance

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  May 6, 2010 06:37 AM

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America owes a debt of gratitude to the two street vendors in Times Square who last weekend noticed smoke coming from a Pathfinder that was ditched at the curb with its engine running and flashers on. They alerted a nearby mounted police officer to the imminent danger, thus setting off a series of events that led to the apprehension and arrest in only 53 hours of the alleged failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.

While details surrounding the attempted attack and arrest are still unfolding, it appears that concerned citizens and gum shoe detective work led to the rapid collar. The Shahzad case, like the case of the failed underwear bomber before him, shows that surveillance cameras do little to keep us safe compared to traditional police work.

New York City's "steel ring" of 3,000 surveillance cameras (including 82 in Times Square alone) played virtually no role in capturing the alleged bad guy, according to New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. Instead, it was a couple of alert citizens, responsive cops on the street, effective police detectives following a trail of low-tech clues -- VIN numbers, house keys and a cell phone number that Shahzad gave to the woman he bought the truck from -- that helped nab Shahzad before he escaped to Dubai.

In other words: the successful model for getting the alleged "bad guy" is more Sam Spade than Jack Bauer.

So why, you might ask, is our federal Department of Homeland Security investing millions of dollars to underwrite local police efforts to build a surveillance net over our communities while laying off police officers and community-based public safety programs?

The answer, of course, is money. While local communities are being starved for public funding, the federal Department of Homeland Security and related federal agencies are investing in a domestic surveillance model of policing rather than in traditional community-based policing.

Just last week, the Globe reported that Boston's Police Department -- the oldest public safety department in the country -- is doling out millions in federal Homeland Security money to install surveillance cameras in the nine communities around Boston. With virtually no public debate, they are installing a federal surveillance net that will sweep up everyone who lives in Boston, Quincy, Winthrop, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Everett, Chelsea and Revere. The net will enable local cops to watch our every movement without any oversight of how the information will be used now or in the long run.

In order to staff this new surveillance architecture, the Boston Police Department and State Police are building so-called "Fusion Centers" to house data miners working for the police to track our movements. Indeed, Boston received millions in federal stimulus money to hire a dozen new "analysts" to thresh and bale the haystacks of data at the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC).

Meanwhile, we have slashed millions of dollars in youth anti-violence programs, substance abuse programs, and summer jobs for youth in Boston. We've eliminated our mounted police force and are laying off laying off local cops in communities around the state.

Throughout the state, our public safety infrastructure is collapsing - last week a broken water main left millions without clean drinking water and crumbling electrical circuits on the subway led to a fire and the hospitalization of 20 Red Line commuters.

The sad irony is that all these new surveillance toys don't even keep us safe. In Britain, where police have installed one camera for every 15 residents and people are seen by an average of 300 cameras a day - video surveillance has done little to reduce or deter crime. And just yesterday, the array of video cameras at Logan airport failed to stop or catch a purse thief.

In the few instances where cameras have helped to solve crimes, the cameras seem to work in parking garages and other well-lit and relatively empty areas. Even then, traditional policing turns out to be far more important at crime-solving than street cameras. In the meantime, reports of illegal government surveillance of protected political speech are on the rise as local cops use their newly-expanded power to spy on environmental activists, anti-war demonstrators, or celebrities.

Focusing on surveillance to the exclusion of investing in traditional public safety also can overwhelm the system and hurt law enforcement efforts. That's what happened with the December 2009 underwear bomber attempt: the haystack of surveillance bytes became so big that we missed the alleged bad guy until it was almost too late.

To be sure: government use of domestic surveillance technology goes way beyond local surveillance cameras, perhaps even the the Times Square incidence. Check out Jeremy Scahill's recent blog about the role of the U.S. Army Special Operations Force in flying over New York, armed with Shahzad's cell phone number and scooping up Shahzad's location. But where did the cell phone number come from? Turns out, Shahzad gave it to the woman from whom he bought the Pathfinder. That's right: traditional police work -- not surveillance.

Concerned citizens on airplanes and street vendors in Times Square don't need a surveillance camera or a high-tech grant from homeland security to spot when something is amiss and do the right thing.

But they do need a public safety officer in the saddle nearby to alert and good detective work to follow up. This much is clear: investing in community-based policing will do more to keep us safe than throwing scarce tax dollars at video surveillance.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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