We have learned or we should have learned that it is a false comfort to argue that those who have nothing to fear, should fear nothing in terms of surveillance and privacy problems.
We should have learned that because we have a long history in this country of abuse of surveillance dating back to the conduct of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
I was therefore concerned that the council last week was willing to expand the use of public surveillance of parking lots under the guise of security and concern about car break ins.
In fairness, they do want to have oversight and be guided by use polices.
Mayor Brett Lee said, “I’m supportive of having cameras. The key with cameras is the policy surrounding their use. I’m very supportive of having cameras physically there.”
He said, “The idea here is not to catch someone from breaking into a car, it’s to discourage someone from (it) – it’s prevention.”
Councilmember Dan Carson said, “I’m supportive of going through our normal process of evaluating surveillance technology both to look at the cameras and I am interested in learning about the license plate readers.”
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs said, “The issue of increased use of cameras, I share the same concerns about the parameters around them, but I think personally… there’s a lot of concern (about crime).”
Councilmember Will Arnold noted that there will be a process for these items and he is open to discussing those details.
“I share many of the concerns that folks have about cameras and recognition technology, but my personal feeling is that license plates are not a private thing,” he said. He saw the tracking of vehicles by law enforcement as the point of license plates, “I don’t see this as being an invasion of privacy, although there should be limits as to what is done with that information – crime prevention not cost recovery.”
I really wish the council would ask hard questions first and then pursue a policy here. I don’t just mean about use policies.
The first problem – there is no evidence that video surveillance is effective. That was a strange omission from the discussion. If we are going to give up privacy, we should have evidence that the cure will work.
It sounds good – have video surveillance, catch or deter bad conduct.
The problem is clear if you have ever watch surveillance in court – it helps at times but what it rarely does well is actually identify the perpetrator. So if you have a known suspect, the video surveillance can work rather well in showing what they did. It does not work particularly well in showing who did.
Why? Lighting is a big problem. Resolution of the camera is a huge problem. Angles are another problem.
The ACLU in objecting to using cameras for potential terrorist subjects notes: “The real reason cameras are usually deployed is to reduce much pettier crimes.” They find, “it has not even been demonstrated that they can do that.”
It is ripe for absue. The ACLU notes: “One problem with creating such a powerful surveillance system is that experience tells us it will inevitably be abused.”
This probably concerns me the most. I see a use-policy as a false-hope which I will explain in a moment.
The ACLU lists five ways that such surveillance camera systems can be misused.
Criminal abuse: “In 1997, for example, a top-ranking police official in Washington, DC was caught using police databases to gather information on patrons of a gay club. By looking up the license plate numbers of cars parked at the club and researching the backgrounds of the vehicles’ owners, he tried to blackmail patrons who were married. Imagine what someone like that could do with a citywide spy-camera system.”
Institutional abuse: “During the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, for example, the FBI – as well as many individual police departments around the nation – conducted illegal operations to spy upon and harass political activists who were challenging racial segregation and the Vietnam War. This concern is especially justified since we are in some respects enduring a similar period of conflict today.”
Abuse for personal purposes: “Powerful surveillance tools also create temptations to abuse them for personal purposes. An investigation by the Detroit Free Press, for example, showed that a database available to Michigan law enforcement was used by officers to help their friends or themselves stalk women, threaten motorists after traffic altercations, and track estranged spouses.”
Discriminatory targeting: “Video camera systems are operated by humans who bring to the job all their existing prejudices and biases. In Great Britain, camera operators have been found to focus disproportionately on people of color. According to a sociological study of how the systems were operated, “Black people were between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half times more likely to be surveilled than one would expect from their presence in the population.””
Voyeurism: “Experts studying how the camera systems in Britain are operated have also found that the mostly male (and probably bored) operators frequently use the cameras to voyeuristically spy on women.”
In Davis, what would I consider the most serious possibilities: criminal abuse, institutional abuse, and discriminatory targeting.
My concern here is this: “Advanced surveillance systems such as CCTV need to be subject to checks and balances.”
Use policies therefore would seem to be a good idea to resolve this problem. The ACLU argues there need to be “clear consensus about where we draw the line on surveillance” as well as “legally enforceable rules for operation.”
The problem of course is that we have had legally enforceable rules governing the use of surveillance in this country in various forms for a long time. And that hasn’t stopped abuse.
But as was the case with FBI, by the time that a governmental body was willing to step up and act, decades had gone by.
In the meantime, the biggest problem that I see is: we don’t know, what we don’t know.
Are these remote possible downsides here in Davis – maybe. Maybe not. I always worry about the cumulative impact of having every movement I make be caught on video. I worry about nefarious and incompetent investigators searching surveillance for patterns and clues that might actually be innocent and used to implicate innocent people.
And I worry that we don’t know, what we don’t know.
Use policies are great, but you need to actually catch someone in wrongdoing in order to for them to do any good.
The ACLU warns: “The growing presence of public cameras will bring subtle but profound changes to the character of our public spaces. When citizens are being watched by the authorities – or aware they might be watched at any time – they are more self-conscious and less free-wheeling.”
That gets us back to the start: what is the benefit here versus the risk? Is putting a surveillance camera in a parking lot with inconsistent lighting, difficult angles, and relatively low resolution going to protect us from petty crime or is it more likely to simply be an intrusion into our privacy?
The ACLU concludes: Like any intrusive technology, the benefits of deploying public video cameras must be balanced against the costs and dangers. This technology (a) has the potential change the core experience of going out in public in America because of its chilling effect on citizens, (b) carries very real dangers of abuse and “mission creep,” and (c) would not significantly protect us against terrorism (or even petty crime).”
I think if the city wants to do this, they need to have an actual study done by a consultant who is not affiliated with law enforcement and vetted by civil liberties professionals to see if this is worthwhile.
—David M. Greenwald reporting