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Editorial: Sharon Selectboard right to approach security camera question with caution

  • (Electronic Frontier Foundation illustration -- Hugh D'Andrade)


Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Sharon Selectboard is wise to exercise caution in considering the idea of installing security cameras at the town offices that could monitor activity across the street at the park-and-ride lot near Interstate 89. The proposal raises a host of questions both practical and philosophical.

The idea was broached at Town Meeting earlier this month by Dana Colson, whose 19-year-old son, Austin, disappeared last year and was found dead of gunshot wounds five months later in Norwich. No charges have been brought in the case so far.

The elder Colson believes that his son and his killer drove by the lot on Route 132 the day he disappeared and that if available, surveillance footage might have provided key evidence. Several residents spoke in favor, and it has been suggested that cameras could also deter drug activity taking place at the lot.

It is impossible not to sympathize with the grieving father’s point of view. But the Selectboard has since discussed the proposal and — appropriately in our view — expressed deep reservations about it, although it is continuing its inquiry.

On the public-policy side, there is a legitimate question whether the town even has authority to install cameras to monitor a state-owned property, such as the park-and-ride lot, as opposed to monitoring its own property for security reasons. If it does, who would be responsible for reviewing the footage and how often? How would the video be stored and for how long? Would the footage constitute a public record subject to the state’s Right-to-Know law? Would police need a warrant to access it, or would the town simply make it available on a routine basis to anyone and everyone?

These objections may seem far-fetched, but one could easily imagine a scenario in which parents, for example, seek access to footage to keep tabs on their teenagers, or a suspicious spouse seeks circumstantial evidence of infidelity.

In short, this has all the makings of a slippery slope, as Selectman Kevin Gish suggested to staff writer Jordan Cuddemi for a recent story.

No doubt State Police would welcome adding this tool to their toolbox. It might make their job easier, although driving illegal activity such as drug dealing or prostitution out of any particular physical location often results in that activity simply moving along to another place.

And although it is a consideration, what is convenient for police is only one value in play here. The second set of problems with the proposal is less tangible than the first but ultimately more important. While people using a public space certainly do not have an absolute expectation of privacy, they should have a reasonable expectation that their daily activities are not under government surveillance.

This may seem a quaint notion in the heyday of smartphone cameras, in which anyone may be recorded doing anything at any time by a complete stranger, and of ubiquitous shopping center surveillance cameras. But those are qualitatively different from the government collecting video footage about one’s day-to-day activities absent probable cause to believe you are doing something illegal. That kind of intrusion has implications for freedom of association as well as privacy rights. Who you ride to work with each day is no matter of government concern and creating a record of it impinges on a basic right: The right to be left alone.