The tiny southwest Alaska town of Dillingham recently received a $202,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security to install 80 surveillance cameras to protect its port. But local residents are worried that the cameras will be misused to keep them under surveillance.
This smells like yet another Ted Stevens-style pork barrel handout, but it isn’t, not exactly. It’s a direct result of DHS’s old program for giving away taxpayer money where every state got a chunk of money equal to every other state. The program has since been changed to reduce the amount granted outright to each state, and provide a more risk-based approach to giving out the rest of the money.
But the program brought in massive amounts of money to sparsely populated states such as Alaska and Wyoming, which then promptly went shopping for the latest toys.
Dillingham, with a population of 2,400 and not even a single traffic light, will have twice as many cameras as Anchorage, a much larger city and port.
The police chief, Richard Thompson, says that the cameras are much more likely to be used to police the port during the summer, when it’s filled with commercial fishermen, to break up drunken brawls and spot drug dealers. If the cameras prevent one death, “I don’t care what’s said about me,” Thompson told the Anchorage Daily News.
And to top it all off, the city is putting the cameras on the Internet. Anyone can visit the City’s web page and view the output from the surveillance cameras. As of today only a few cameras are up and running, and they haven’t been properly aligned, but the city plans to have them all running by this summer.
But some townsfolk are outraged. The only thing being captured by the cameras, they said, are their civil liberties. The white, plastic devices, clustered atop poles at the port or perched on four city buildings, feel like the glaring eyes of Big Brother. Some, with dual lenses for different lighting conditions, even resemble storm trooper helmets from Star Wars.
“I think it’s an invasion of privacy,” said Freeman Roberts, a barge captain. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of looking at people.” . . .
Thompson said the public opposition in Dillingham comes from misunderstanding. The cameras, which all won’t be fully operational until this summer, take still pictures every 15 minutes. They have no audio and only would capture movement if something crosses the center of the screen. The images will be used to gather evidence and stored only if there is a crime reported. — Anchorage Daily News
Yeah, right. I don’t believe that for a minute. The nature of government is to expand its power. Once the cameras are installed, what would stop them from from being misused, as police have misused their powers all over the country?
Dillingham’s six-man police force doesn’t have the manpower to watch television all day, he said.
“We haven’t got the time or the energy or desire,” Thompson said. — Ibid.
Not today you don’t, but what about tomorrow, or two years from now? And if they can’t watch the surveillance cameras all day, then they will create only a false sense of security in those who see them, because nobody’s watching. So while they might be useful in catching a criminal, after the fact, they aren’t going to be able to prevent crime, as Thompson seems to hope, precisely because nobody’s watching them.
The quote of the day, though, comes from Mayor Chris Napoli. “We’re only being responsible stewards of public property,” he said. “That’s what a government official has to do.”
I would laugh, but the surveillance state isn’t funny.