Millions of federal grant dollars allocated for municipalities to use for terrorism prevention and response are being spent to expand camera surveillance systems, buy data-mining programs for small-town police departments and create facial-recognition technology.
Homeland security officials say the purchases fall within first-responder grant guidelines and are important tools in the war on terrorism. But privacy advocates say the technology is no deterrent to terrorism and can be used to violate civil liberties.
“Big Brother is using his extended family as surrogates to develop and implement technology that is very invasive on privacy,” said former Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican and former U.S. attorney.
New York City has the largest and oldest system, with more than 7,000 public and private surveillance cameras. Baltimore, Chicago and New Orleans are installing camera surveillance networks with federal homeland security dollars.
Chicago financed its 2,250 cameras with a $5.1 million grant and is adding more cameras over the next two years with another $48 million first-responder grant. The cameras, which cost up to $60,000 each, are controlled remotely by police to zoom and rotate, and are equipped with night vision.
In 2004, homeland security funds bought $193 million worth of surveillance cameras. Similar “physical security enhancement equipment” for large cities is to be used primarily for ports, said Homeland Security Department spokesman Marc Short. “I can’t imagine a more logical expenditure of funds,” he said.
Maryland is spending $1.3 million in federal grants for a camera system that will expand to Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. Washington has a camera system, but it is turned on only for major events or during emergencies, said Melissa Ngo, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“The other cities will be watching everyone all the time, even when there is no emergency,” she said. “One of the biggest risks that come with these homeland security cameras is that it’s misused or abused.”
Grant funding for data-mining software comes from the Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program for cities with populations of fewer than 50,000. Nearly 1,500 cities have applied, Mr. Short said, but just more than 200 towns will be awarded grants from the $2 million available for new technology.
“This is not legitimate anti-terrorism law enforcement. It’s not the responsibility of the local government to be doing this,” Mr. Barr said.
In addition to the data-mining program, the money can be used to buy radiation detectors, night-vision kits, telescopic search devices with monitors and earphones, portable thermal-imaging cameras and protective gear for use in response to weapons of mass destruction.
However, Mr. Short said, “only a handful of applications” have been received requesting the data-mining software.
Information used by local law enforcement will be shared nationwide and eventually with the federal government. “It’s naive to think the information will be kept local,” Mr. Barr said. “Government at every level cannot seem to resist the urge to surveil and accumulate data. It’s frightening what they are doing; it’s truly frightening.”
Questions regarding privacy concerns and civil-liberty implications were directed to Nuala O’Connor Kelly, the Homeland Security Department’s privacy officer, who did not respond.
Under a separate first-responder grant, $470,000 was awarded to North Carolina to develop facial imaging technology, which identifies people by measuring distances between points on a face. Federal officials want to use this technology for passport identification, but critics say the system won’t work.