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Rep. Constance A. Morella
Chairwoman, House District of Columbia Subcommittee
Opening Statement




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Congress of the United States
House of Representatives


MARCH 22, 2002

We live in a video age. Information from all over the world is beamed in real time across any number of television stations; the first instinct of many eye witnesses to breaking news is to grab their camcorders and become amateur reporters; the places where we shop, eat and bank all use security cameras.

Naturally, police forces, including the Metropolitan Police Department here in the Nation's Capital, are increasingly employing video surveillance, both to deter crime and to catch criminals. In our Nation's Capital, the MPD is in the process of establishing the most extensive surveillance network in the United States - a system that could ultimately include more than 1,000 cameras,1 all linked to a central command station accessible to not only the District police, but the FBI, the Capitol Police, the Secret Service, and other law enforcement agencies.

The existence of such a network raises many questions. Does the prevalence of cameras inhibit our privacy rights? Are these cameras effective in deterring or solving crimes? When and how will these cameras be used? Who controls them? Who has access to the recorded images? How long are these images retained, and for what purposes? And, perhaps most urgently, who gave permission for the implementation of this system, with cameras primarily pointing at federal government buildings, and where are the policies governing its use?

I called this hearing because I believe there has been an unfortunate lack of public debate on these issues. Even supporters of electronic surveillance - including the Security Industry Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police - concede that police departments should only use these cameras if there is a widespread public desire for such technology. There is clearly no consensus in the District of Columbia for or against these cameras, because the public only learned about their existence after they had been put in place.

Citizens must have confidence that electronic surveillance is not going to infringe on their rights - including what Justice Louis Brandeis described as our most precious right, "the right to be left alone." We saw the dangers of moving too quickly with this technology, and without proper oversight, when the District had its problems with faulty red-light cameras, and the due process issues now being raised regarding the speeding cameras. Several constituents of mine have received speeding tickets from these cameras for cars they had previously sold. One of them, in fact, is an elderly woman who lives in a nursing home and no longer drives. Imagine her surprise at getting ticketed for speeding.

I understand the Metropolitan Police Department now has 13 closed-circuit cameras of its own linked to its Joint Operations Command Center, and it is working on linking the center to several hundred existing cameras in public schools and subway stations. There are also plans to connect the center with hundreds of regional traffic cameras.

One of the biggest concerns I have is that, once this system is in place, it will be too tempting for the police not to use it to its full force. It's the old camel's nose story - or maybe we should say the camera's nose. Once the camel gets his nose under the tent, pretty soon the rest of the camel will be under the tent. Once the police have cameras that can see anywhere in the city, pretty soon the police will be using those cameras to look anywhere in the city.

We can look at London for guidance. A camera system initiated to combat IRA terrorism has sprouted into a network with an estimated 2-and-a-half million cameras. The average Londoner is caught on film about 300 times per day. And, although the British police believe the cameras have helped reduce crime, no terrorists have been caught by their use.

Does the Nation's Capital want to build such a system? I have heard Chief Ramsey say no, that this is a system designed to be "event-specific," to be activated only during threats of terror or large public events. But Mayor Williams has said publicly that the city should follow the lead of cities such as London, which use the cameras to enhance day-to-day policing. The Chief has also said the department will consider installing cameras in neighborhoods that have problems with drug markets and the like.

Obviously, some guidance - and legislation - from the Mayor and the Council of the District of Columbia is needed to establish how extensive this camera network should be and what safeguards are necessary to protect privacy rights. The policy makers must give clear direction to the police about how video surveillance can be used. Written agreements must be forged with others who might use the Joint Command Center, whether they are federal law enforcement agencies or other local police forces. 

As I learn more about this issue, it is becoming more evident that Congress may have to step in and ensure that this technology does take away our "right to be left alone." This is especially true given the testimony we will hear today from the U.S. Parks Service, which is planning to place cameras at the monuments on our National Mall.

Because the Constitution does not explicitly grant a right to privacy, it has been often left to Congress to draw the boundaries. In 1974, for example, Congress passed the Privacy Act, which set rules for federal agencies on releasing personal information. Two years later, Congress established minimum privacy requirements for banks and financial institutions, leaving the states free to enact tougher standards if they so desired. That could well be something for us to consider concerning video surveillance.

We have two panels today, one that will primarily focus on the District's own surveillance system and one that will be able to broaden the discussion a little further into the Constitutional and legislative questions. We did invite several others to testify, including the Capitol Police and Justice Department, but they declined, saying they had no role to play in a discussion of the District's surveillance network. And the British government does not let government officials testify before Congress, so we were unable to get someone who can speak with first-hand knowledge about London's experience.

In concluding my remarks, I'd like to say that our Nation's Capital stands as the ultimate symbol to American freedom. Since taking the chairmanship of this Subcommittee 15 months ago, I have worked with Congresswoman Norton on many issues, but perhaps no single one as frequently as trying to keep this city safe, open and accessible to the residents, businesses and 19 million tourists who come here each year. I've said before that we cannot turn the District into "Fort Washington" - and it matters not whether that fortress is built with an impenetrable ring of concrete barriers or with an unregulated network of digital cameras.

1. The Metropolitan Police Department has 13 cameras. D.C. Public Schools and the Metro subway system have more than 200 cameras each. The D.C. Department of Transportation wants to establish a network of 700 traffic cameras. All would have the ability to be linked to the central command center.

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