Monday, July 23, 2007

The Surveillance State Comes to Lowell

There is an unsettling story by Richard Massey in today’s newspaper. Lowell officials are installing a powerful, 24-hour surveillance zoom camera atop a 200-foot cellular tower to cover the entire city, but they say it won’t invade the privacy of local residents or be used to spy on residents as they sunbathe, drink alcohol, or cavort in their backyards.

Mayor Perry Long and Police Chief Joe Landers say the city has had complaints about youths having sex in the park, people defecating in the park’s water fountains, and vandals spraying graffiti on picnic tables, and they say the spy camera also could be used to monitor traffic accidents on U. S. 71B and I-540. Maybe they could even use it to see if city employees are using that expensive rented equipment to build a new park. “It will be used for security, not for observation,” Mayor Long said. “We’re not in the observation business.”

Lowell residents are rightly skeptical about the snooping. “You don’t know what Tom, Dick or Harry is going to be looking at that camera,” Marty Gabbard said. “If you want to monitor the bypass, put a camera on the bypass. …But to be able to watch what I do is an invasion of privacy. If I want to drink a beer, it’s none of their business.”

Eddie Taylor, a Lowell resident of 45 years, is skeptical of the city’s intent for the camera. “They can tell you that it will be used to watch the schools and the parks just to get it through, and then turn it around and watch everything. I think it’ll be used for more than the schools and the parks.”

Chief Landers, who said he has even thought about posting the feed on the city’s Web site, admits the camera will catch local citizens in compromising, though legal, activities. He now says that the dozen or so Lowell employees using the spy camera will be encouraged to keep quiet about whatever embarrassing things they see people doing. Right.

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