Surveillance cameras will not make Cambridge safer

The city of Cambridge is again considering using surveillance cameras. When we first looked at this issue as a community we decided the threats to our privacy and civil liberties outweighed the benefits. Back then we were discussing a limited number of cameras, supported by Homeland Security grants for the purpose of “monitoring evacuation routes.” Now, we are discussing placing cameras across the city — and our concerns remain the same.

Some city councilors and community members suggest that surveillance in Cambridge is inevitable, believing surveillance is everywhere: from cameras in banks and grocery stores, to the information we disclose online, and yes, even to the massive amounts of data collected each moment by the NSA. Some are lulled by the false notion that cameras will increase our safety.

Others say that if we have “nothing to hide” we have “nothing to fear.” We say: surveillance in Cambridge is not inevitable. Surveillance is not a recipe for safer neighborhoods; it does not deter violent crime and terrorism; and it risks the continued compromise of our freedoms and civil liberties — freedoms women and men the world over are fighting to gain for themselves.

The draft policy on surveillance says cameras will be used to “deter terrorist and criminal acts,” but we are hard-pressed for evidence that surveillance will make Cambridge safer. Studies repeatedly show that surveillance does not lower crime rates. In fact, cameras have had no significant impact on crime in the UK — where there are 4.2 million cameras, or 1 for every 14 people. In San Francisco, cameras have had a small impact on property crime — but no impact on violent crime.

Moreover, the Police Department’s latest report shows an 11 percent decrease in crime over the past year — including a 15 percent decrease in violent crime. All this was accomplished without the use of surveillance.

Whether we need it or not, surveillance is becoming a larger part of modern life. This spring’s revelation that the NSA collects Americans’ data on a massive scale is hardly the first. Disclosures of earlier programs in 2002 and 2006 were extensive and disconcerting. As technology becomes more advanced, the government’s ability to peer into every corner of our lives becomes ever greater. And as this potential increases, so too does our obligation as citizens to ensure that government does not unduly intrude into our private lives or disproportionately burden particular communities.

We also need to ensure we are not militarizing everyday policing. This spring saw an exceptional, horrific moment in which officers were thrown into combat-like circumstances in pursuit of the Marathon bombers. We need to be certain law enforcement is equipped for those moments, but we cannot mistake that preparation for business as usual.