The 'Delicate Balance' of Security and Privacy at Philadelphia's City Hall

Safeguards worry some citizens as staff seeks to provide protection, access control

Tustin characterized this as a convenience to visitors: One photograph would provide access to any of the buildings.

Convenient or not, Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell said, the project is troubling.

The system could intimidate many of her neediest constituents, she said.

"I have clients looking for IDs," she said. "I have clients with mental-health issues... . You have some people who don't register to vote because they don't want to be located or they have some kind of record."

Blackwell said she had sought information on the security plans but had not received any answers from the mayor's office.

"I find it sad - I find it frightening - that this is where we're heading," she said. "At least I can fight for those people who are coming to me just for services."

Joan Schlotterbeck, the commissioner of public property, who will head up operating the new system, said that procedures were still being weighed and that no actual operating plan had been proposed, much less approved.

"It will be a work in progress," she said. "I think we'll work through the issues."

She said it had not been decided how long images in the database would be stored. She indicated that no law enforcement agency or city agency (other than the Department of Public Property) would have access to the system, but she could not say whether that would change.

There was "a delicate balance" in making sure that City Hall was both secure and public, Schlotterbeck said.

For activists outside the system, the plans raise some fundamental questions.

"In general, I wonder if we will be actually safer or if this will just make it that much more difficult to redress grievances or address the government," said John Dodds of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. "I don't know if it's about terrorism or just people protecting themselves from the disenfranchised."

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania said they, too, were troubled.

"It seems a very strange idea to have that amount of security around your city administration," said Mary Catherine Roper, ACLU staff attorney. "You've got to wonder: What is the purpose of this database of bad pictures?"

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