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October 29, 2013 > Editorial: Security or Safety?

Editorial: Security or Safety?

At times, international and national debates have a way of filtering to the local level for political action Ð or maybe itÕs the other way around. Questions about the right to privacy and security are always difficult since one of the founding principles of this nation is based on personal rights and protection of those rights.

At the October 15, 2013 meeting of the Fremont City Council, an agenda item, ÒReallocation of Federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Funds for FY 2013/14Ó - $269,375 - was discussed. It was proposed that a portion of these monies be used to finance a surveillance system in low and moderate income neighborhoods. The rationale for installation of surveillance cameras on publicly-owned street lights and buildings is that such devices deter and help solve crimes; a test camera is already in use. Fremont Police Department requested funds for 10-20 cameras Òto prevent crime and ensure resident safety.Ó However, no matter whether in agreement with the use of cameras or not, the reason a portion of these particular funds, shifted from use by Allied Housing, should be used for surveillance was unclear. It appeared that this Òfound moneyÓ was simply a convenient source of cash rather than an appropriate allocation.

Although the council wisely questioned the use of CDBG funds for this purpose and tabled the matter for further review, discussion also considered the central issue of citizen privacy and Òexpectation of privacy.Ó Such cameras, extensively used in England, indiscriminately record both innocent and criminal actions. On public property, is this an invasion of privacy? Do citizens expect surveillance as they drive on City streets, picnic in Central Park or walk along public thoroughfares?

It appears we are already in a world filled with not only public law enforcement scrutiny, but citizen oversight as well. Currently, dashboard cameras are in common use by police and private citizens; cameras in all sorts of electronic devices are commonplace as well. Some neighborhoods have coordinated private observation and recording devices to protect their homes. Are all cameras restricted to scrutiny of their own property? Where does surveillance stop or should it? An international debate currently rages over surveillance of phones and other electronic conversations; sparking outrage by strategic allies and citizens throughout the world.

Have we become a world filled with acceptable electronic eavesdropping and surveillance? Councilmembers expressed more concern with the source of funding rather than its purpose. The common thread throughout the conversation was conciliatory toward use of cameras in the public domain. Photographing events and determining an independent view of them is often considered a neutral arbiter of actions (Rodney King, etc.?). However, the use of such devices has also brought to light the fickle nature of captured images; angles, perspective, electronic manipulation, prior and after images as well as the intent of the photographer are important reality factors. Similar to the flood of Reality TV, what you see may not be as transparent as you think.

As with all tools, especially when determining guilt or innocence, it is essential to understand that surveillance tactics are valuable, but possibly flawed as well. Those who demand safeguards and caution serve as guardians of public trust in personal protection both through individual and private initiative and public policing entities. The surveillance genie is out of the bottle and will not return to it. It is up to our collective conscience to consider whether use of these devices is acceptable and under what circumstances.

Although use will probably not be contained in the private sector, public response and debate is a critical component of our future. Something within me rebels against observation of my every move when in public. However, capture of criminal activity and perpetrators is also high on my list of concerns. Where is the balance? We live in a large metropolitan area where the adherence to an acceptable code of honor is problematic; where is the line between a safe, fair and respectful society and anarchy?

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