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Opinion: Underground eyes

(The following editorial was posted on the White Plains Journal News website on August 25.)

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has finally gotten its security plans in gear, unveiling an ambitious plan to install electronic surveillance equipment in New York City subways and to bring other security improvements to other facilities and commuter railroads.

Last month, the MTA came under fire for sitting on nearly $600 million it had set aside three years ago for anti-terrorism measures — at a time when New York's congressional delegation was nagging the federal government for the paucity of funding earmarked for non-air mass transit protection in general, and for New York in particular. And at a time when the London subway attacks, which followed the Madrid bombings, stood as grim reminders of mass transit's vulnerability.

This week, the MTA announced it had awarded a $212 million, three-year contract to a group of companies led by Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. to install a surveillance system that will include 3,000 motion sensors and 1,000 cameras to keep an electronic eye on subway stations and tunnels. Plans also call for a new radio communication system for MTA's police force, which covers the Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road; and security upgrades at MTA bridges and tunnels, and at Grand Central Terminal and Pennsylvania Station.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, playing its customary and usually valuable role of defender against government intrusiveness, raised privacy concerns over the new cameras. We fail to see a problem with electronic devices, trained on public places, extending the scope of what in-person security can openly observe.

Cameras and sensors that can spot suspicious activity or the untended bag are not foolproof means of foiling attacks, but they have the potential to do that, as well as deter would-be terrorists. And London's vast surveillance system, while it did not prevent attacks, proved its effectiveness in helping track down suspects after the bombs exploded.

Interviewed commuters expressed widespread support for the measures, mostly reserving complaints for another plan that would bring cell phone service underground. The MTA sees that, with good reasoning, as adding a sense of security for riders who will know they can use their phones in an emergency.

The objection was rather cheering considering that it dealt, not with terror, but with exasperation at the subways becoming yet another venue for unavoidable eavesdropping on inane yakking.

That will be a small enough price to pay for a safer ride.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

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