NMA E-Newsletter #148: Big Brother at Work

The request reads like a shopping list for a counter-terrorism strike: low-light cameras to identify people and vehicles at 100 meters, helmet-mounted cameras, cameras for “use around high-risk activities” and cameras that can read license plates across three lanes of traffic.

In reality, it’s part of a plan proposed by Tampa city officials to provide security for next year’s Republican National Convention. Funds to buy or lease the gear are expected to come from federal taxpayers in the form of a $55 million congressional appropriation.

The surveillance will target convention protestors (as many as 10,000, according to convention organizers), but, given the sweeping nature of the plan, many bystanders and motorists are likely to be ensnared as well.

And while police officials admit they may not get all 238 cameras on the original request, critics are already reacting. A spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida likens the approach to “hitting a gnat with a sledgehammer.” (To be fair, officials canceled a request for two aerial surveillance drones due to cost concerns.)

We’re not surprised to see Tampa city officials latching on to a camera-based solution. Florida is THE battleground state for red-light cameras with nearly 100 cities operating programs. Camera opponents continue to mount legal challenges, and some cities have not seen the promised financial payoffs. State lawmakers are expected to resurrect legislation to ban cameras statewide in 2012.

It’s within this contentious political environment that Tampa recently switched on its own cameras at 19 intersections. Again, no surprise. Given this addiction to photo enforcement, we question whether or not the convention cameras will come down once the balloons drop and the political circus folds up its tent.

Tampa officials have rejected security camera proposals from two vendors as too expensive and plan to send out new requests early this month. Whether or not additional proposals will be more in line, or if the city will have to scale back it its plans remains to be seen. We can only hope that the sledgehammer will give way to a flyswatter.

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