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Published: Monday, 10/25/2010

Ohio plans network linking surveillance cameras


COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio plans to create a network linking the thousands of cameras that monitor roads, schools and private businesses in an effort to provide more eyes in emergencies.

The surveillance network, modeled after one that has operated in Alabama since 2006, won't be used snoop on people, said William Vedra, executive director of the Ohio Homeland Security agency.

"It's going to improve the capability of all the first responders around the state," Vedra said. "It's not Big Brother — I've heard that term all around the state, and it's not even close."

Ohio's Camera Integration Project will be accessible by police, firefighters and other authorized officials to get a quick view of what's going on during major incidents. It will pull together government-operated systems watching highways, public buildings and airports, and the private security cameras at shopping malls, office complexes and other major facilities, though private companies won't be required to join.

The cameras will not be monitored around the clock when the system is launched, which authorities expect to happen within two years, Vedra told The Columbus Dispatch for Monday's editions.

The Controlling Board, a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers, approved $235,000 for the project. But one board member, Republican Rep. Jay Hottinger, expressed concern about the snooping potential and noted that the state already has had trouble keeping prying eyes from checking its confidential databases for information on Ohio celebrities such as "American Idol" runner-up Crystal Bowersox.

"(State officials) need to give the highest assurances to Ohioans that their privacy is not going to be invaded," Hottinger told The Dispatch, while adding that he does see value in giving authorities a window on what's happening anywhere in the state.

Alabama's system, called Virtual Alabama, came together in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and more recently proved its usefulness when a gunman went on a rampage last year in a quiet rural town, said Jim Walker, the state's homeland security director. Ten people were killed before the man fatally shot himself in the worst mass slaying in Alabama history.

The system is secure and officials don't know of any abuses, Walker said.

"It's behind a firewall. We vet all the users," he said.

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