If you need proof that technology evolves in the blink of an eye, check out the video surveillance system in Marshfield, Mass.

Last year the Marshfield Police Department deployed more than a dozen video cameras in several high-risk public buildings to secure the town’s infrastructure. But these cameras aren’t your average 24/7 video surveillance recorders. Each one features an “eyelid” that opens and closes via remote control.

The department has so far installed the cameras at the town hall, library, a recreation center and airport. Striking a balance between safety and privacy, this surveillance system helps police officers gain real-time video access during an incident while also easing concerns of citizens who don’t like to be watched by cameras constantly, according to Bill Sullivan, Marshfield’s chief of police.

Across the country, law enforcement agencies continue to see video surveillance systems as potential crime-fighting tools. For example, in Ramsey County, Minn., even the public can view some of the local video feeds and report crime in progress as part of a Neighborhood eWatch program. But rarely do these tools win praise from privacy advocates, who believe these Big Brother-esque cameras encroach on personal freedoms.

The battle has been ongoing in different Massachusetts communities. In February 2009, the Cambridge City Council voted 9-0 to oppose the installation of police cameras provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts. Later that year, the Brookline Town Meeting also voted to remove cameras.

“Surveillance cameras aren’t a magic solution to crime,” said Chris Ott, communications director of the Massachusetts ACLU. “ATMs have cameras built in, but people still get mugged at ATMs. Cameras can’t protect people.”

To counter attacks, companies have looked for ways to develop smarter technology that can enhance public safety efforts and ensure privacy protection.

Marshfield’s police department started searching for new technology to respond better to workplace confrontations among town employees. In the town hall, specifically, highly charged incidents and verbal assaults have created safety concerns, Sullivan said. But when someone calls 911, waves of emotion tend to drown out the critical information police officers need.

The Marshfield Police Department found the SituCam Privacy Protecting Cameras, developed by SituCon Systems. When the eyelid is closed, no one can see video. During an incident, specific town personnel press a wireless Instant Alert button, and the system shows first responders live video and the origin of the distress call.

“In a matter of seconds, a police dispatcher, unfamiliar with geography, has information about where the event is happening and who the victim might be,” said SituCon’s CEO Seth Cirker.

Each office manager can determine the level of privacy. For instance, the eyelid may be open for certain hours during the day or closed during the day and only open at night. Each camera, which costs about $2,000 and gets power from a single Ethernet cable, can have a different setting.

“Having this capability, addressing community and accountabilities allowed us to place cameras in the most privacy-sensitive, intimate meeting rooms,” Cirker said. “We leverage video as a situational awareness tool, not a 24/7 surveillance video.”

The ACLU, Ott said, doesn’t oppose video cameras in specific high-risk locations, such as entrances to transit systems and stadiums. But no system is safe from questions.

“Who’s at the controls and what policies are in place to control how they use the cameras?” Ott said. “We all want to be safe, but there are serious concerns about surveillance cameras and their lack of effectiveness and control.”

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer