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Balancing Safety and Privacy

Two towns gain the safety benefits offered by surveillance systems without associated privacy concerns

For local governments and its citizens the term “surveillance dilemma” may not be considerably well-defined or eminent. The concept, however, certainly is. It has always been implied. Ever since technology afforded government with the opportunity to remotely monitor their communities, a struggle to balance the inherent public safety benefits of security cameras without eroding privacy has persisted through all conversations.

Now more than ever, as safety concerns increase and the use of security cameras become less expensive and more prevalent, the debate surrounding this dilemma is being played out all across the country -- in towns as small as Mahanoy City, Penn. and cities as vast as Chicago and Houston.

One of the most common characteristics of this pervasive debate is that at some point during the planning process, officials will recognize that while security cameras may provide exceptional benefits at certain times, they will also infringe upon privacy -- an essential civil liberty -- at all others. The question presents itself; do potential safety benefits from time to time outweigh constant privacy implications?

Depending on whom you ask the answer to that question may be a resounding “no.” Others might render a different perspective. Regardless, CCTV and surveillance camera projects of all kinds are no longer merely fodder for defiance from groups such as the ACLU -- their impact is now felt by communities as large as Columbus, Ohio where a camera integration project melds government-operated cameras with private security systems.

In this instance and others, despite assurances from lawmakers and law enforcement that privacy will not be compromised, citizens remain skeptical and critical. In the mind of many citizens, no matter the perceived safety benefits, being forced to permanently concede their privacy overrides everything.

A Tale of Two Towns
The privacy standards of the State of Massachusetts are held in the highest of regards by civil liberty and privacy-focused organizations so it’s surprising, and significant, that an examination into newly conceptualized rules for security cameras start here.

So, how did a quaint seaside town reduce the anxieties of its community, while still safeguarding their privacy, following the unraveling of a shocking, Columbine-like plot? How did a large metro community maintain its comfortable environment and aversion to privacy intrusions while still ensuring the safety and security of its citizens? In both instances, the answer lies in the deployment of SituCon System’s Privacy Protecting Technologies.

Port Washington, N.Y.-based SituCon develops an Emergency Awareness Solution specifically for situations like these -- and for any other town, facility or organization where privacy is a concern but the safety of personnel and the security of property remains critical. The Emergency Awareness Solution enhances traditional video systems through patented technologies that incorporate privacy protecting camera enclosures, a sophisticated alerting system and software which makes video available only when needed.

The solution was designed to overcome the limitations of traditional video systems that merely allow law enforcement agencies and authorities to review incidents after they occur. When enhanced with SituCon’s technologies, in an emergency, video systems can instantly alert authorities to who is in trouble and let responders see what is happening, while guaranteeing the privacy of individuals at all other times. Most visibly, the SituCam Privacy Protecting Camera features “eyelids” that open and close to allow cameras to be placed in previously prohibited areas like classrooms, religious institutions and healthcare facilities.

Marshfield, Massachusetts
In 2004, the town of Marshfield received large-scale national media attention when police unraveled a Columbine-like plot that was as startling in its intricacy as it was in its severity. The plot, which included a planned assault on emergency first responders, heightened the anxieties of the community. In addition to the leadership and foresight of Police Chief William Sullivan, the town recognized the need to improve public safety through the installation of video cameras in several high-risk public buildings.

Sullivan’s knowledge of the community’s priorities contributed to his understanding that he would need to identify a solution that provided maximum safety without sacrificing the privacy of citizens and employees.

Enter SituCon. While the company at first appeared enigmatic to Chief Sullivan and the town of Marshfield -- neither a video surveillance vendor, video recording solutions provider nor security systems integrator -- it did not take long for them to recognize the key differentiators afforded through SituCon’s Emergency Awareness Solution. After careful deliberation and examination, Marshfield partnered with SituCon to deploy the SituCam Privacy Protecting Cameras in a number of town buildings, including the town hall, recreation center, library and airport. With SituCam’s “eyelid” enclosures, which remain closed unless explicitly activated, privacy was guaranteed.

In the event of an emergency, however, the eyelids could open to provide the benefits of security cameras -- exactly what Sullivan and the community required. Since implementation, in addition to the obvious privacy benefits, the safety of town personnel has improved significantly. Employees are able to immediately notify the Marshfield Police during an emergency or critical situation by using SituCon’s Instant Alert buttons. Simultaneously, the camera eyelids open to allow responders to monitor the incident firsthand. Within months of the installation, the Instant Alert buttons were used to diffuse a situation at town hall, as Marshfield Police Captain Phil Tavares automatically received an alert on his cell phone, recognized the explosive potential of this event and immediately accelerated his department’s response.

The town also attributes SituCon’s deployment to discouraging theft and vandalism as Marshfield has scheduled the SituCams for activation overnight, when buildings are vacant, to provide protection of valuable town assets. Sullivan also lauds the solution for the role it has played in improving officer safety. With an advance look into a situation through SituCon’s real-time incident awareness and video monitoring, officers are better prepared for all types of emergencies.

Brookline, Massachusetts
In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security provided funding for surveillance projects around the Boston metro area. The town of Brookline, a large neighbor, agreed on a trial basis to install a camera system to monitor major throughways. But despite the town’s commitment to analyze the safety benefits and privacy implications of the system after one year of use, many community members couldn’t wait that long and quickly changed their minds. At a town meeting, just two months into the project, they voted to remove the cameras due to privacy concerns.

Fast forward two years and the scene changed once again. Through the diligent work of a citizen oversight committee, and their eventual identification and deployment of SituCon’s technology, the community reconciled citizens and selectmen’s desires to make video available only at certain times to preserve both safety and privacy.

In line with the new policies developed by the oversight committee, in concert with Police Chief Dan O’Leary, Brookline installed SituCon’s technology and eyelid enclosures to activate their cameras only during high risk periods (such as nighttime hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.). Additionally, in the event of an emergency, the Brookline Police Department can remotely activate the cameras using SituCon’s software, which simultaneously sends text messages and emails to notify privacy advocates and town officials that cameras are in use. At all other times, however, the cameras remain inactive.

Already the solution has paid dividends from both perspectives -- he cameras have captured two rapists (their truck was identified from video and forensic evidence was gathered within 24 hours), and privacy advocates have reversed their previously defiant stance on surveillance. The “eyelids”, they recognize, are both redundant and essential -- SituCon’s software alone can disable cameras, while SituCam’s “eyelids” make it obvious when cameras are in use.

Proactive Safety and Privacy
In Marshfield and Brookline, despite the different demographics of the two towns and their distinct privacy and safety challenges and sensitivities, SituCon delivered the antidote that was needed. But while the technology proved essential, the privacy safeguards would never have been pushed forward without the proactive safety concerns of the two towns. In Marshfield, town officials recognized that SituCon’s solution could transform security cameras from a forensic evidence tool into a real-time safety device. In Brookline, officials recognized the solution as the balance needed to facilitate a critical public safety program. In both instances, the towns now serve as prototypes for a completely re-envisioned alternative to video surveillance.

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