Security Systems Firm Fastek Defends Municipal Surveillance

Jan. 21--A Cedar Rapids technology company has been drawn into a debate over a small Vermont town's plans to use federal Homeland Security funds to install 16 video surveillance cameras.

Media networks and metropolitan newspapers have been descending on Bellows Falls, Vt., a town of 3,086, since the disclosure last month that President Bush had signed a secret order in 2002 authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on communications between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals abroad.

That's because the village trustees have approved using Homeland Security grants to install 16 surveillance cameras at a cost of $98,000 to keep an eye on the city's crime problems. The action has made Bellows Falls part of a growing national debate over the widening use of surveillance.

Fastek International of Cedar Rapids was brought in through another contractor to design the system, which will use surveillance cameras mounted on public buildings and linked with radio frequency connections. The company has been peppered with requests for media interviews, Managing Director Marc Meyer said, in spite of the fact that Fastek's role has been a relatively modest $5,000 consulting contract.

National media reports have focused on whether using video cameras to "spy" on small-town residents in areas not considered likely terrorist targets is a good use of Homeland Security dollars, and whether the system infringes on privacy.

Stan Scheiding, Fastek manager of security sales, said the town never had any intention of spying, and the cameras are not mounted discreetly.

"They wanted to deter crimes and be able to solve crimes they have occurring in their village, and try to make it a more idyllic place for people to grow up and have families," he said.

Scheiding and Meyer are surprised at the debate that has arisen in the past week over the installation, which has been aired in public hearings and news reports for months.

"I wanted to raise our voice in saying, 'this should not be thrown under the bus because of the light others cast it in,' " Scheiding said. "It's not what their nightmares fear."

Concerns have been expressed that the cameras could see into the windows of downtown apartments and homes.

Scheiding said technology allows the video surveillance systems to be programmed so that such views are blocked.

Fastek, with 60 employees, is often called in to create video surveillance systems, partly because of its ability to link them with other security features.

(Gazette, The (Cedar Rapids, IA) (KRT) -- 01/24/06)