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Drawing the line


Officer safety is one thing. Public video surveillance is something else

By now, we'd be crazy not to be suspicious.

Cameras watch us at school, at the bank, in stores. At intersections where we're likely to run lights. Until the outcry was too loud, from a busy corner in downtown Central Point.

We learned this spring that the government is working on a device that could track each of us by the way we walk. And bids are going out for a camera that a user can wear that records his or her every action.

So what are the chances we can find something positive in the news this week that the Medford Police Department hopes to secure a &

36;500,000 federal grant to install transmitters around town to help collect information about us?

Fair, considering.

— The proposed communications network, first, isn't a camera system itself but a collection of 120 transmitter nodes that act as sort of middlemen in a web of connections among a variety of electronic devices. The network could, for example, allow bank officials to transmit video information to police during a robbery. If police officers had dash-mounted cameras in their cars, they could turn them on during traffic stops and send the information to the police station.

But there's another side, of course. Even though it's not a video system in itself, the network would create a Medford-wide grid across which information could be transmitted, a move that clearly would pave the way toward the use of cameras to watch the public. When Medford approached county commissioners to talk about the system, one proposed use was to watch for vandals at rural Cantrall-Buckley Park.

We see a clear line here. On the negative side is surveillance ' watching the public in public as it goes about its business. On the positive are many uses involving faster communication and improved safety of police officers and others.

If Medford gets serious about the system, citizens should ask where city leaders see the line. They should insist that the city clearly identify the uses of the system and address the potential for intrusion inherent in anything of this sort. City leaders, for their part, should resist the urge to run amok with the fancy new toy.

We live in a nation where technology and politics are methodically wearing away personal privacy. Medford's proposed network could be a useful tool for civil servants. It could also be yet another assault on our freedom to walk down the street unmonitored.