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Austin no longer the coolest city in the USA

February 26, 2009

Austin, Texas… lone island of sanity and liberalism in a less-than-liberal state. With its laid-back attitude, massive urban bat population, superb music scene and reputation for weirdness, it must for some time have been a candidate for coolest city in the States.

Austin... no longer cool

Austin... no longer cool

Well no longer. The latest city to fall for the current wave of government enthusiasm for surveillance that is sweeping the USA is, unfortunately, the city of Austin, whose authorities have voted to install a CCTV system. The local newspaper, The Daily Texan, jauntily informs us that the city has voted to sacrifice privacy for security: that does not sound like the attitude of a confident, hip place. Sorry Austin – unless you people do something about this, you are off my list of cool cities!

Seriously, though: Austin is not a city with an especially high crime rate, nor has it seen any massive recent increase in crime – even if CCTV was any good at reducing crime, which we know from the multiple assessments done in the UK and elsewhere that it isn’t. Yet Police Chief Art Acevedo is quoted as praising CCTV in the UK, specifically in London. Perhaps he has been reading too much of the hype and hasn’t read the British government’s own assessments of CCTV (conducted under the auspices of the Home Office)?

So why the sudden urge to install cameras? Could it be because of the lure of federal funding from the Department of Homeland Security? It could be. Austin has acquired $350,000 to install cameras, and what set of city fathers turns down cash (whatever it is for)? That was one of the main lessons of the expansion of CCTV in Britain in the 1990s and of course cities are now paying the long-term price of their enthusiasm as they struggle to find the money to monitor and maintain their camera systems. Chief Acevedo seems to have no worries about this though – this techno-evangelist is already talking about automation and computer recognition systems. He really sounds like a guy who has started to believe the sales pitches at all those law enforcement technology trade fairs…

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