SurveillanceOhio plans statewide camera network for first responders

Published 26 October 2010

Following the example of Alabama and its Virtual Alabama project, Ohio will electronically link thousands of cameras watching over roads, schools, and even employee break rooms, giving emergency personnel in Ohio unprecedented surveillance capacity

Thousands of cameras watching over roads, schools, and even employee break rooms in Ohio will be electronically linked in a system that will give emergency personnel in Ohio unprecedented surveillance capacity.

The Camera Integration Project is not an Orwellian exercise in tracking the movements of everyday Ohioans, state officials say. Rather, it will provide police, firefighters and other authorized officials with electronic eyes in the event of major emergencies, according to Ohio Homeland Security.

It’s going to improve the capability of all the first responders around the state,” said William Vedra, executive director of the state Homeland Security agency, which is part of the state Department of Public Safety. “It’s not Big Brother — I’ve heard that term all around the state, and it’s not even close.”

The Columbus Dispatch’s James Nash’s writes that in September, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers approved spending $235,000 to develop the camera network. It is expected to be launched in a year or two, Vedra said.

One of the members of the Controlling Board, state Rep. Jay Hottinger, expressed concern about the possibility of rogue authorities using the system to spy on others. He alluded to publicized cases of state and local officials using confidential databases to dig up information on Samuel Joseph “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who gained brief fame during the 2008 presidential campaign, and Crystal Bowersox, an American Idol runner-up.

(State officials) need to give the highest assurances to Ohioans that their privacy is not going to be invaded,” Hottinger (R-Newark) told Nash in an interview. “I certainly can see some of the value and benefits of having the Department of Public Safety and Homeland Security being able to see, in real time, anywhere in the state.”

Vedra said the state developed a privacy policy for its security cameras in 2007.

The new network will be far more comprehensive than anything that has come before, tying together government-operated cameras on roads, public buildings and airports with private security systems at malls, office buildings and other major centers. Private companies won’t be required to join the network, Vedra said.

We’re not looking at the BP on the corner,” he said. “We’re looking at schools, malls.”

Vedra said the cameras will not be continually monitored. Authorities will tap into the system during major incidents to gain an instant read on events, he said.

Ohio’s system is modeled after Virtual Alabama, which was the first statewide camera network when it launched in July 2006.

Alabama’s homeland-security director, Jim Walker, said Virtual Alabama was largely a response to the widespread safety and humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He said the system came in handy during a more localized incident: a rash of shootings in 2009 that left ten people dead in the span of forty-five minutes. The gunman also was killed.

In addition, authorities have linked into the camera network to survey tornado damage, Walker said.

There have been no known incidents of unauthorized use of Virtual Alabama, he said. “This is a secure system,” Walker said. “It’s behind a firewall. We vet all the users.”

Carrie L. Davis, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said such assurances need to be given teeth in Ohio. State officials need to develop policies on who can tap into Ohio’s camera network and how abusers will be identified and punished, she said.

Anytime there’s a new technology, there’s this rush to embrace it,” Davis said. “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.”