O'Malley's scary surveillance plans

January 09, 2007|By Chet Dembeck

I wonder how many of those who voted for Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley realized they were also voting for an open-ended, statewide expansion of citizen surveillance that includes "watch centers" and "watch lists"?

You may think this sounds Orwellian, but it's no joke.

Mr. O'Malley never hid his strong intention to expand the use of technology and police resources to fight crime and terrorism; he simply failed to outline any safeguards that would ensure such increased surveillance wouldn't be abused to spy on law-abiding citizens for political or any other reasons.

Mr. O'Malley plans to establish a new Homeland Security Office in Prince George's County that would link surveillance operations among Baltimore, Annapolis and the Washington suburbs, according to his position paper on homeland security.

"The Homeland Security Office will have law enforcement staff and will be able to monitor critical infrastructure and high-crime zones," the paper explains.

Many more closed-circuit television networks, like those deployed in Baltimore, would also be installed throughout the state under Mr. O'Malley's "watch centers" strategy.

In a recent speech to the National Press Club, Mr. O'Malley explained, "For starters, if each of our metropolitan areas had `watch centers' to monitor hundreds of cameras protecting our critical infrastructure like mass transit, those same cameras could be used as a tremendous force multiplier to improve public safety."

Mr. O'Malley also envisions integrating this centralized intelligence within all levels of government.

"Every major metropolitan area should have a more highly developed intelligence-sharing capacity: All law enforcement officers - city, county, state and federal - should share meaningful information from watch lists, like photos, not just obsolete aliases," Mr. O'Malley said during the same speech.

These proposals raise a host of questions. Who will be watching the watchers? If watch lists are being created, how will it be determined who gets on one? What if the information is wrong? And when information is gathered that is found not to be pertinent to a crime or an investigation, will it be destroyed?

At the very least, these policies should include some sort of independent monitoring of such secretive activities - preferably, by a civilian board - to curb the potential for abuse.

But nowhere in Mr. O'Malley's speech did he outline what specific oversight would be put in place to ensure such enhanced surveillance capabilities would not be abused.

In addition to centralizing such information, Mr. O'Malley also called for a major expansion of the latest surveillance technology.

What Mr. O'Malley failed to point out and address is that these same enhanced capabilities could invade the privacy of countless Maryland citizens and eventually turn the Free State into a police state.

Chet Dembeck has been a writer and reporter in Baltimore for more than a decade. He blogs at www.lastreporter.typepad.com.

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