Could the US fiscal stimulus lead to a surveillance surge?

Largely unnoticed in commentary on US President Obama’s fiscal stimulus plan has been the $4Bn for the Justice Department. Now there are various very worthy programs nominated for funding including quite a large chunk to combat violence against women, but also a lot of cash washing around for rather more vague aims, in particular the $2Bn (i.e.: half the cash injection) for the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program “to fund grants for state and local programs that combat crime”.

The JAG program has already providing funding for many cities to install cameras as part of ‘demonstration programs’, as well as covert surveillance capabilities. However $2Bn is a massive increase in funding and will allow some rather more ambitious schemes to be funded. With the current popularity of CCTV cameras as a catch-all solution in the USA (regardless of negative assessments of their effectiveness elsewhere – see ACLU’s recent convenient US-focused summary), could one side-effect of the stimulus package be a massive ‘surveillance surge’ in the USA? After all, this is exactly what happened in the UK in the 1990s when central state funding through the ‘City Challenge’ program sparked a mania for installing city-centre CCTV systems – see the editorial and the articles by Will Webster, Pete Fussey and Roy Coleman in the special issue of Surveillance & Society on CCTV.

Those concerned with civil liberties and the intensifying push for videosurveillance in the USA should keep a careful eye on applications to the JAG program.