A federal anti-terrorism program has drawn North Jersey deeper into the practice of hidden surveillance, equipping police departments with high-tech cameras, infrared technology and automatic license plate readers to keep tabs on people as they travel to local reservoirs, financial hubs and malls.

The stepped-up security around potential terrorist targets links the region into a network of clandestine monitoring. Some of the departments are already putting to use the equipment provided by Homeland Security; others are gearing up.

Oradell, Emerson, Closter and Harrington Park police have car-mounted night-vision technology and video and recording equipment that can watch over the Oradell Reservoir and dam — and the hikers and anglers entering it. West Milford can do the same around the Newark watershed. Wayne police are scanning scan the license plates of vehicles outside the Willowbrook Mall, while East Rutherford officers patrol hotel parking lots near the Meadowlands and the Federal Reserve building off Route 17.

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Local police signed onto the Homeland Security network have broad discretion in deciding what to monitor and when to share surveillance feeds with federal agents. And when national security isn’t calling, they can use the equipment for day-to-day police work, such as enhanced tracking systems to catch suspects and better radio communication among officers.

“It’s not going to sit and collect dust waiting for a threat at the stock exchange,” said Mahwah police Chief James Batelli, whose department is buying cameras to monitor the New York Stock Exchange Data Center located in the township.

Still, broader questions remain unanswered about the secretive program. It was begun by the federal government as a way for local police to help the anti-terrorism effort and extend monitoring of possible targets in the post-9/11 period. But such rapid surveillance growth, done with limited publicity at best, has some civil liberties advocates arguing there’s no way to tell if privacy safeguards are being addressed.

Homeland Security’s representative in New Jersey, citing national security, would not say what information is being gathered, how long it is kept, or to whom it is being disseminated.

Overall, Homeland Security has identified 1,849 sites to monitor in all 50 states, and in 2010 distributed $48 million to help do so. In Bergen and Passaic, 18 police departments have received federal grants totaling nearly $1.4 million since 2005 for equipment to watch over more than a half-dozen North Jersey locations.

Since 2009, law enforcement agencies in Bergen and Passaic counties have received $735,175, or 37 percent of the state’s share of money under the Buffer Zone Protection Program — one of Homeland Security’s primary grants. That is up from 19 percent over the previous three years.

Only certain parts of the program, such as license-plate readers that scan every car against federal watch lists, are in constant use. Officials stress that to arbitrarily run other systems, such as covert cameras, would be impractical and intrusive.

“We can use (the surveillance systems) if there is a good reason,” Wanaque police Capt. Thomas Norton said. For example, he said, video cameras watching pedestrian traffic around a strip mall or the Raymond Dam can be switched on when national security is heightened. “I don’t want people being monitored 24 hours a day; I have an issue with it,” Norton said. “And we don’t have the manpower to commit.”

Anyone can be legally photographed in public without their consent, courts have held. And there is no evidence that the Buffer Zone agenda targets any specific group.

But there tends to be very little transparency in the new program about what’s actually being done and who’s in charge, said Michael German, a former FBI agent who has researched federal surveillance methods for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Where are the public guidelines? How do we know there is any oversight?”

Over time, the collection of video footage and license plate numbers, combined with emerging technology such as facial recognition software, could give the government too much information about where people go and what they do, German said. “When people believe they are being watched they do things differently,” he continued. “Is that the kind of society we want?”

Some of those concerns surfaced last year when The Associated Press disclosed that the New York Police Department, with help from the Central Intelligence Agency, was secretly monitoring Muslims across the region, including Paterson and Newark.

The potential for blanket monitoring, rather than surveillance pegged to a specific terrorist threat or suspect, is where the line blurs between national security and invasion of privacy, said Ahmed Alshehab, of the Council on American Islamic Relations’ New Jersey chapter.

“That’s the slippery slope,” Alshehab said. “Where do you stop? It’s pretty much open season on anybody.”

State officials won’t say how long the surveillance information is kept, but the ACLU argues that license plate scans, for example, could be kept indefinitely. In late July, the group filed public records requests with 21 New Jersey police departments seeking information on how they are using automatic license plate readers.

“The American people have a right to know whether our police departments are using these tools in a limited and responsible manner, or whether they are keeping records of our movements for months or years for no good reason,” the ACLU said in a statement.

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While the Buffer Zone tools are primarily assigned to help secure potential targets, they can also moonlight on routine police work unrelated to national security, police said.

“It makes for much better record-keeping and photo surveillance capabilities than in the past,” Closter Administrator Quentin Wiest said of his borough’s new cameras and computers.

As part of the program, FBI and Homeland Security agents — with permission from local police — can watch the surveillance feeds at the Regional Operations Intelligence Center in West Trenton. The operations hub, run by state police, is known as a “fusion center” that shares information across the intelligence community.

Dominic Rota, spokesman for the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, said fusion centers are not repositories for license plate scans, but he did not know how long local agencies might hang on to the information.

Public representatives not briefed on the Buffer Zone program — including elected local officials who must vote to accept grants applied for by their police departments — are discouraged from knowing where, how or when the equipment is used, The Record found. Even identifying the purchases has proved difficult. Freedom of Information Act requests by The Record for a list of equipment and locations of monitored sites were denied by Homeland Security because, the agency said, the release could jeopardize security.

In North Jersey, most elected local officials surveyed welcome the extra gadgets provided by DHS, but some remain uncomfortable authorizing the secretive program that watches residents without their knowledge.

In West Milford, the police chief asked the Township Council last fall to authorize spending for a covert surveillance camera program, funded through the Homeland Security grant. When council members asked about its purpose, Chief Gene Chiosie said the project was meant to be secret and something “civilians shouldn’t know.”

“You know what concerned me: When I asked how the cameras were going to be used, I was just told ‘It’s part of Homeland Security,'?” said former Councilman Daniel Jurkovic, who resisted the purchases. “Not everything that is right for the federal government is right for the citizens of West Milford.”

Council members were later briefed behind closed doors, and eventually approved the resolution.

The Buffer Zone program was created to protect critical infrastructure, but that term is interpreted broadly.

Wayne, for example, doesn’t have any major bridges or chemical facilities — infrastructure that could be a target — but gets funding to help monitor the Willowbrook Mall. Wanaque was given funds because it is home to a reservoir, but local police say the equipment can also be used to tap into preexisting security cameras in the public high school and the strip mall on Doty Road, adding they would only do so in an emergency such as a natural disaster or a violent crime

An Associated Press member exchange

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