80 Cameras for 2,400 People

This story is about the remote town of Dillingham, Alaska, which is probably the most watched town in the country. There are 80 surveillance cameras for the 2,400 people, which translates to one camera for every 30 people.

The cameras were bought, I assume, because the town couldn’t think of anything else to do with the $202,000 Homeland Security grant they received. (One of the problems of giving this money out based on political agenda, rather than by where the actual threats are.)

But they got the money, and they spent it. And now they have to justify the expense. Here’s the movie-plot threat the Dillingham Police Chief uses to explain why the expense was worthwhile:

“Russia is about 800 miles that way,” he says, arm extending right.

“Seattle is about 1,200 miles back that way.” He points behind him.

“So if I have the math right, we’re closer to Russia than we are to Seattle.”

Now imagine, he says: What if the bad guys, whoever they are, manage to obtain a nuclear device in Russia, where some weapons are believed to be poorly guarded. They put the device in a container and then hire organized criminals, “maybe Mafiosi,” to arrange a tramp steamer to pick it up. The steamer drops off the container at the Dillingham harbor, complete with forged paperwork to ship it to Seattle. The container is picked up by a barge.

“Ten days later,” the chief says, “the barge pulls into the Port of Seattle.”

Thompson pauses for effect.

“Phoooom,” he says, his hands blooming like a flower.

The first problem with the movie plot is that it’s just plain silly. But the second problem, which you might have to look back to notice, is that those 80 cameras will do nothing to stop his imagined attack.

We are all security consumers. We spend money, and we expect security in return. This expenditure was a waste of money, and as a U.S. taxpayer, I am pissed that I’m getting such a lousy deal.

Posted on March 29, 2006 at 1:13 PM48 Comments


Pat Cahalan March 29, 2006 1:52 PM

I am pissed that I’m getting such a lousy deal

Amen. If you pass out money before building a plan, it all goes out into the ether.

arl March 29, 2006 1:54 PM

Even if it were to happen this way, the only thing the cameras would do is give somone to look at long after the boom.

But you understand the mindset better if you remember that police investigate crimes. Prevention is a small side effect of their job.

Pat Cahalan March 29, 2006 1:57 PM

Judging from the tone of some of the people reviewed in the article, I wonder how long it will be before most of the cameras are just shot down, literally?

Camera Shy March 29, 2006 2:03 PM

From the article:
Says high school wrestling coach Johnny Johnson: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what does it matter?”

To Johnny Johnson: If I’m not doing anything wrong, why do you want to watch?

jmc March 29, 2006 2:14 PM

Maybe one should check on who lives in that town. Could be someone interesting. Since museum guards are spying at the german female chancellor, the police there might be peeping a lil’ too. 😉

@camera shy: The answer: “Well okay … but now that they are there, why not use them? Is all that tax money supposed to be spent in vain?”

Rob Mayfield March 29, 2006 2:27 PM

@Pat “I wonder how long it will be before most of the cameras are just shot down, literally?” – that would be part of the problem, while these communities have received grants to ‘implement’ security, who’s going to pay for the maintenance over time ? One can imagine in 2, 5, ? years time a signficant burden on smaller communities trying to maintain aging ‘security’ systems – with part of the community blindly convinced that it is a ‘good thing’ and the remainder ramping the cost by shooting out the cameras …

derf March 29, 2006 2:32 PM

4 guys wearing turbans pull a van up to a building in the middle of the city, and it’s the last thing the camera or operators see as a nuclear device detonates. How exactly did all of those camera help with homeland security?

All the cameras do is gather evidence for prosecuting crimes (if they’re caught on the camera), or allowing police to get lazy as they watch through the cameras instead of patrolling.

MSB March 29, 2006 2:34 PM


“Well okay … but now that they are there, why not use them? Is all that tax money supposed to be spent in vain?”

If one’s so eager to put the cameras to some use, just let them monitor one another: camera 1 points at camera 2, …, and camera 80 points at camera 1.

Now every camera is protecting some “valuable asset”, so the money is not wasted. 🙂

havvok March 29, 2006 2:47 PM

woah! The stupidity of this is overwhelming!

The Department of Homeland Security, > which gave Alaska more than $16
million in grants last year, takes
seriously the threat of terrorists
infiltrating the country through remote
border areas.

Remote border areas eh? Like, oh, say the rest of Alaska that is not under surveillance?

WaitAMinute March 29, 2006 2:47 PM

What a Joke.
Besides the Chief’s farfetched imaginative justification, there is clearly no terrorist threat here. Most of the justification in the article is about preventing or detecting crime.

Certainly having better tools to detect or prevent crimes is a good thing, but let’s not confuse crime prevention with Homeland Security and the threat of terrorism. Let’s call a duck a duck.

The only real benefit here is to the security companies, who are all getting rich selling all this DHS funded security gear to these hapless communities.

Better yet, maybe the city could turn the operation of all those cameras over to some TV network who would pay them to create a reality TV show using all the camera footage.

sigh March 29, 2006 3:20 PM

Likely not, the pipeline is quite far from the coastal farming town of Dillingham.

In regards to the Police Chief’s “idea”… there are a lot better places to drop off a container. Particularly ones that don’t involve going the 1200 miles around the Alaska Peninsula.

AG March 29, 2006 3:25 PM

lol- I read this story earilier and thought of sending it your way.

My two cents: The chief is right remote areas are were an intelligent attacker would enter, BUT
Wouldn’t that money be better spent going to the Coast Guard though?

But, you got to admit that looking at the most northern American webcam would be kindof geeky cool:http://www.ram.uni-bremen.de/ramcam.html

Glenn March 29, 2006 3:45 PM

The cameras were bought, I assume, because the town couldn’t think of anything else to do with the $202,000 Homeland Security grant they received.

The article says the police chief applied for the grant. So it’s more likely they wanted security cameras and thought of DHS as a creative way to get them. In the mid-80s I went to a grad school colloquium on, what, neural networks? Pattern recognition? Taxpayer-funded, anyway. The presenter fairly jumped up and down with enthusiasm. “Just find a way to relate your research to the Strategic Defense Initiative. The money is just about unlimited!”

Prohias March 29, 2006 3:51 PM

My heart goes out to the Chief.

The empathy he has for Seattle and other mainland residents is remarkable. He is selflessly spending his budget money to protect us in the heartland against Phoooms. Next time please remember this when you complain that you don’t get enough bang for your (tax) bucks.

Directionally_Challenged March 29, 2006 4:00 PM

Last time I checked, Alaska was north of Seattle. If he points to the right and indicates Russia 800 miles away, how can Seattle be behind him 1200 miles away? I can see that it may be behind him, oh, a bit more than 22,000 miles. Maybe it’s different in Alaska…

Ed T. March 29, 2006 4:53 PM

Seattle goes “Phooooom”. We get rid of Microsoft and Starbucks. And this is a bad thing why?

(Just kidding. Getting rid of Starbucks would result in a whole lot of very tired and cranky people.)


Too scared to say March 29, 2006 5:06 PM

From the article:
Says high school wrestling coach Johnny Johnson: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, what does it matter?”

To Johnny Johnson: Can we install a camera in your toilet? And your bedroom? What about in your bed? Cuz if you’re not doing anything wrong, what does it matter?

Privacy – just plain privacy per se – is valuable.

Fred X. Quimby March 29, 2006 5:34 PM

Maybe the Dillingham Department of Tourism will use the cameras to sponsor terrific high-def LIVE virtual reality tours of the town and some terrorists will become so enamoured of the quaint little village that they’ll move there and as long as they live there the town will be safe from attack and magical unicorns will write thank-you notes to Chertoff.

It could happen!

PerfDave March 29, 2006 6:00 PM

Ed T. – it’s not like there aren’t other places to get coffee if Starbucks were to go boom. Though I’m sure that Starbucks will not rest until that is no longer the case.

rucerius March 29, 2006 7:07 PM

Trash: it looks bad. It can swirl around in the wind and distract drivers, potentially causing accidents. Trash in rivers threatens water supplies, and probably has bad effects on plants and animals (which the country must take responsibility for). Trash in the city pollutes our urban environment. It has a wholely negative psychological effect on the citizenry.

There should be DHS-funded cameras everywhere. By filming, and possibly interdicting litterers, the scourge of trash in America could be halted.

Maybe Some Anti-Patriotic People think those are poor reasons to spend DHS money. I don’t think it is generally considered DHS’s mandate to clean up highways and streams, and there are probably many other programs that are in fact more clearly responsible.

Consider this argument: some terrorists could probably plant 5 billion ieds, tossing them casually from car windows in full view of the public, and no one would recognize them from among the roadside trash. They could even float trash mixed with ieds (or, even worse, drugs) from foreign countries so that it lands on US shores.

If we had cameras, along the highways and rivers and shorelines and maybe in the middle of the ocean, we could film people dumping trash into rivers, into the sea and on the roadside, and maybe prevent them from doing it.

If you don’t want DHS cameras to stop litterers, you’re just surely abetting terrorists planting roadside bombs among our trash or floating it in from foreign lands, or tossing it over borders, just as surely as turning a blind eye to marijuana ensure that its sale in America finances Al-Qaeda.

The thought of trash coming across the US border unimpeded ought to grab the interest of any patriotic border-state citizen, particularly as it is well known that trash from foreign neighbourhoods, including those Haitian, Cuban, Russian, Chinese, Mexican, North Korean and even New Brunswick neighbourhoods nearest to the US, migrates easily to US soil, even across fences and oceans. Many might be surprised to know that a lot of trash is of foreign origin, and that Americans are not responsible for making it.

There needs to be compaign to clean up America, and the threat of terrorism ought to wake us up to the problems of trash. Cameras are our essential helpers in this effort.

DHS gets two thumbs up from me for their farsighted efforts in installing cameras.

Pat Cahalan March 29, 2006 7:49 PM


It’s not “boom”, it’s “Phoooom”.

“boom” is old hat, we’re ready for “boom”. “Phoooom”, on the other hand, would be scary and new. “Phoooom” prevention warrants DHS money.

Andrew March 29, 2006 11:25 PM

It’s his department. He and his six officers take the oath to protect very seriously.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. With a security control center like this, the emergency services have a huge advantage compared to Ye Old Days. You can size up the scene at a glance and dispatch resources accordingly, getting well inside the response curve compared to the usual “wait for the first responder to show up, then you ‘really’ know what’s happening” routine.

This may just be small town policing meeting the 21st century, courtesy of DHS pork going “OINK.”

However, I’m not too keen on having the mental health center, Planned Parenthood, etc. under public scrutiny.

Oh, did I mention that the camera room should be open to the public, if they want to physically go down there and watch? (Assuming that they are quiet and don’t disrupt operations, or there’s a glass wall, etc.)

I don’t want some small town politico taking juicy tapes home, or arranging cameras so that his personal business is exempt . . . we need some rules to keep that sort of thing in check.

Davi Ottenheimer March 29, 2006 11:33 PM

“There are 80 surveillance cameras for the 2,400 people, which translates to one camera for every 30 people.”

Hmmm, one camera for every $2525? That’s quite a bit higher than average for usual surveillance. Sounds like the project might just be a source of income in “a place where some people still make raincoats out of walrus intestine”.

From a continental perspective the price of a false sense of security in Alaska is not terribly expensive:

“The Department of Homeland Security, which gave Alaska more than $16 million in grants last year, takes seriously the threat of terrorists infiltrating the country through remote border areas.”

That sounded pretty big and impressive to me, until I took a glance at some recent grant numbers:


“In the FY2006 budget request, the [Bush] Administration proposes roughly $3.36 billion for state and local homeland security assistance programs. This is $235 million less than these programs were appropriated in FY2005 ($3.59 billion).”

And that’s not the whole amount…there is even more “federal homeland security assistance available to state and local governments”.

Seems like the Alaska budget is at most still less than 0.5% of the Administration’s spending…but I agree that this money could probably be better spent. Even the most compelling justification cited in the article (a man fell asleep in the cold and died) tends to suggest a higher standard of living is needed (healthcare, jobs, etc.) rather than less privacy.

Magnus Nordlander March 29, 2006 11:36 PM

Yeah, loads and loads of cameras will surely increase the security against terrorists. As we all know terrorists are easy to recognise. Not only because they all wear huge turbans and have 3 foot beards, but the most telltale sign of a terrorist is the giant “Hi! I’m , and I’m a terrorist” badge that they all wear.

Now if they only could get a very expensive automated system for recognising those badges, stopping all the terrorists in Dillingham will be an easy job. Also, I think that the cameras might be protecting the town against terrorists in another way. I mean, if the people in Dillingham would look around, would they see any terrorists? It’s just like a tiger protection rock.

Or wait a minute there weren’t any terrorists there before either!

I’m just glad my tax money isn’t used for such shenanigans (I don’t live in the US). Although my government spends a lot of money on stupid things too.

QuantumG March 29, 2006 11:37 PM

I think you’re right in saying that this will not prevent the crime, but it will help identify those who aided in perpertrating the crime. If any of those involved are not the “crazy terrorists” who don’t care if they get caught or not, then these cameras may very well prevent them from aiding in any future crimes. Unfortunately, both you Bruce Schneier and the rest of the western world have been tricked into thinking that law enforcement is there to prevent bad things from happening to good people. There’s a word for the kinds of means needed to do that, it’s called tyranny. Only in a tyranic “ask first” society can you ever prevent crime, any kind of crime. I thought Americans had figured that out during New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” reign. Yes, we can trade our freedom for security. We can stop riots by preventing people from gathering. We can prevent terrorists from transporting weapons around the country by restricting freedom of travel. Do we want to? Hell no.

alec March 30, 2006 1:45 AM

“…I am pissed that I’m getting such a lousy deal.”

sure, giving that much money to dillingham, alaska is stupid and sure the police chief is an idiot, but you shouldn’t get pissed about it… you live in america! …to live in america is to sign a silent contract that says, “i accept pervasive idiocy and political corruption in exchange for the good things that this country can provide like lots of yummy fastfood and plenty of cable channels”…

Clive Robinson March 30, 2006 6:33 AM

Question, does anybody know just how many people have crossed from Russia to Alaska (accept by air) since the U.S. bought it for a few dollars?

If so can they then find out what sort of vehical they where in, ie could it actually carry a nuke?

Anonymous March 30, 2006 6:38 AM

“Getting rid of Starbucks would result in a whole lot of very tired and cranky people.”

Or a lot of people drinking better coffee…

Ah Clem March 30, 2006 8:37 AM

I happen to have done an information security audit in Dillingham Alaska. Notable experiences. There is one taxi – all fares are $14. There are two major roads. One that goes e-w only several miles and one that goes way North to one of the most beautiful State Parks in the USA. There is no pipeline, but there are some large gas storage tanks for the largest US fishing fleet which spends most of its time on shore. Example-right now they only fish for herring about 45 minutes every year. Potential to damage many fishing boats at one time is possible because many are stored together.

Everyone pretty much knows everyone and if you have lived there before for any short period of time, they will come up to you in one of the few resturants in town.

Disasters identified. Not anywhere near an earthquake zone. Potential for tsunami near the port, but much of the town is higher up and the potential is far less than Seward (see history of tsuamis in alaska). The biggest man made threat to the population is to the tribal people who live nearby. They have switched from using burlap bags to black plastic bags for furmitation of animal intenstines/parts and it greatly increases the risk of botulism in the local homemade brew.

Greatist potential for crime would somehow envolve taking advantage of some of the very rich people who vist some of the resorts many miles North of town. Example the GCI (Alaska Phone Company) Mansion, where they bring people up for special lobbying. Again, only one road North and South.

The other danger is the hamburger served at the Golden Dragon Resturant at the airport. Other food is ok. The pizza at the church is also rumored to be good. I noted that when returning there were more TSA inspectors than passengers on my almost empty flight.

The other thing is there is a great Coast Guard presense to prevent illegal fishing.

My assessment…the chief has been drinking too much of the local brew.

Prohias March 30, 2006 9:18 AM

@Ah Clem

After reading your summary it is clear that the greatest danger is the local brew.

Dan March 30, 2006 10:29 AM

Okay. So it’s a town full of cameras. And there are people watching every thing you do. But this does not make it a bowling alley.

Kevin McGrath March 30, 2006 11:14 AM

The whole government bureaucratic response to 9/11 is a national disgrace. IMHO, all they did was create a new massive federal organization, DHS, and throw money at it, with out having done any real planning. Now we have all these pols running around with dollar signs in their eyes looking to carve out their piece of the DHS allocated pork.

Patrick Farrell March 30, 2006 2:00 PM

“Closer to Russia” indeed.

Bravo, anonymous poster. I don’t think they could have picked someone who fits your movie-plot-scenario type security “thinkers” better, Bruce.

Christoph Zurnieden March 30, 2006 3:03 PM

I heard that some of the settlements in the upper side of the northern hemisphere are annoyed by the noise polar bears make while investigating the contents of the garbage cans.
And it is some more money to make from tourists/biologists if they are guaranteed a sharp and well exposed picture of a polar bear without to much of these ugly chilblains.
So, 80 cameras seem to be a bit exaggerated but if they got them free …

At least I hope so, because you could have supplied a lot of people with clean water with US$ 202,000 sigh


fouro March 30, 2006 5:16 PM

Marvelous. We’ll be regaled on cable news with a grainy endless loop (with timecode!) of the upstream crappy job the steely-eyed national security-minded Majority are doing.

Not “getting it” has become a spectacular art form.

another_bruce March 31, 2006 8:12 AM

the cameras make perfect sense to the people who thought of them, at both the federal and local levels.
at the federal level, the neocon objective is to make the government “small enough to drown in a bathtub.” the only way to do this is to cause it to spend itself into bankruptcy, which is why the “party of small government”, every time it comes into power, expands government so that it may approach its objective. from this perspective, it doesn’t matter if grant recipients buy cameras or stuffed pink bunnies, just so long as the money is spent and a well-connected corporation gets the contract.
from the local perspective, it isn’t their money so why should they care? the point is to have your grantwriter hit the federal pinata hard enough to spill some money out. i’ve never been to dillingham but i can guess it’s the kind of place where any federal money entering the economy is welcome, no matter what it’s spent on.
ted stevens represents dillingham in the u.s. senate, and his reputation for getting federal money for bizarre projects is nonpareil.

grunt March 31, 2006 4:31 PM

another_bruce makes a good point. Ted Stevens is the non plus ultra of the Washington pork-barrel gimme. However, there are plenty more stories of DHS money going to frivolous projects around the country which can be googled up pretty quickly.

The interesting stat I saw was that Alaska got three times the amount of DHS money per capita than New York state did. That’s a problem – unless Washington is as worried about those pesky Russians as the Dillingham Police Chief seems to be.

Davi Ottenheimer April 1, 2006 8:56 PM

@ grunt

You have a good point, but the “perimeter” argument seems to be relevant here. The spending in Alaska is likened to defending the US border(s) from terrorists bound for unknown domestic locations (perhaps including NY); it’s not just to protect Alaskans.

Incidentally, I just happened to be reading about the Sestak campaign in PA and found this excellent quote:


“There’s no question about my defense security credentials,” Sestak said. “We recognized in the military that the health of our individuals in body, and in mind by education, is key to our national security. People are our national treasure, and this Congress has eroded that security by their policies.”

That’s a much better way of saying what I was trying to suggest above. The LA Times article says the Police Chief of Dillingham wants to justify the cameras as a detective measure for saving lives:

“Thompson tells the story of a skipper, John Henry, 51, who one winter night in 2004 fell asleep on the beach and froze to death. Today, a camera watches over the spot where he died. Thompson says if a camera had been there that night, police could have saved Henry.”

But you have to wonder what the actual event was and whether there might be some more natural/effective preventive measures to avoid the skipper’s unfortunate death? Reminds me of stories about men in Dover who would wander off from the pub with a bottle of cider and wind up dead in some lonely field. The problem was generally considered to be result of a weak economy (low/no wages), lack of opportunity (low/no training/eduction), or poor health-care (no alchoholism treatment) rather than a justification for surveillance…

On the other hand, if the Dillingham police are suggesting that cameras were really put in place to help them monitor areas that are high-risk (skippers often fall asleep in the cold?) in order to help increase their coverage area while decreasing response time, that seems like a common cause.

J. Nadine April 8, 2006 9:37 PM

There are more than just cameras in Dillingham, Alaska!

Jack’s Puppets
Deception and Tragedy Strike Family in Suspenseful New Novel

DILLINGHAM, Alaska – Many people fear the unexpected and hope they will never encounter a situation where their lives or the lives of loved ones are in danger. Lillian Harrison’s life has already been touched by tragedy and murder, but now she must face deceit and manipulation that puts her own life in peril in J. Nadine’s new novel, Jack’s Puppets (now available through Barns & Noble.com and Amazon.com).
Lillian and her husband, Matthew, love the outdoors and have made plans to someday move to Alaska. Sadly, on the day their daughter, Anna, is born, Matthew’s life is taken, leaving Lillian to raise Anna and realize their dream alone. Years later, Lillian makes the move and expands her family jewelry business to Anchorage. It is here that Lillian meets Jack Rugar, a mysterious lodge owner from 350 miles away with an unknown past.
Suzy, a longtime employee of the family business and friend of Jack’s, discovers that Lillian and Anna are in danger and asks him for help. When Emily, Lillian’s sister, returns from an extended absence, Suzy finds herself in the same peril of those she is trying to assist. Jack is not sure if he can fully trust Anna’s fiancé, Jonathon, who is an employee at Lillian’s store. Jonathon also questions Jack’s loyalties as they both become major influences in the family.
Jack’s Puppets is full of mystery, love, romance and deceit set in a majestic wilderness. This book pulls the readers into a story where trust is hard to gain and manipulation leads to danger. A surprising story from beginning to end, Nadine presents a narrative that will entertain experienced and novice readers alike.
Nadine enjoys gardening, music, movies, family, coffee and a good book. She currently resides in Alaska with her husband of 20 years and their two children. Jack’s Puppets is her first novel. For more information, visit http://www.jnadinebooks.com.

Disturbed August 17, 2006 7:51 PM

Why, in this of ever rising cost of living, profiteering oil cronies and a manipulating administration does any and all whims of people in power become the burden of the ordinary people. Allowing such invasion of personal privacy in the name miniscule threat is an over reaction of our own doing. When are these absurtities going to become so over the top that the people stand up and make the pork barrel wasters accountable. Make our elected officals responsible for their actions. If America doesn’t like something, then vote it away. Start at the top and hope we correct this condition before we pay the collective consequence

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