Surveillance Sneaking Its Way Into Cities

ACLU 'model ordinance' would at least require a public debate


In 1966, the then-Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas warned about an "alarming trend whereby the privacy and dignity of our citizens is being whittled away." Each step is imperceptible, he wrote, "but when viewed as a whole, there begins to emerge a… society in which government may intrude into the secret regions of man's life at will."

What would Douglas think about the post-9/11 world, where the National Security Agency conducts warrantless Internet searches and government agents track cellphone conversations from high-tech airplanes? The latter program, revealed last week by a Wall Street Journal report, has sparked little outcry.

Perhaps people feel powerless to confront federal programs. But a new effort hopes to empower them to confront local authorities who embrace similar technologies by prompting cities and counties to pass an ordinance requiring a public debate and oversight of any such new technologies.

Like most California communities, San Diego area officials employ many devices—license-plate readers, facial-recognition software, video-surveillance systems, etc. These technologies can have advantages—body cameras help monitor police interactions with the public, and can reduce misbehavior by the public and officers—but there's no question they impose a cost.

In a democratic society, shouldn't the public have a chance to debate these policies publicly before officials enact them?

Unfortunately, that's not always happening. "Local law enforcement has been taking advantage of millions of federal surveillance dollars streaming into California to sidestep the normal oversight process of city councils and boards of supervisors and keep the public in the dark about important community decisions," said Nicole Ozer, a director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California, in a statement.

The civil-liberties group has drafted a model ordinance for localities to consider. If the public doesn't even know that a local agency is, say, using drones or video cameras, then how can anyone make sure the collected data is not being misused? And the lack of a discussion up front can lead to an angry backlash later.

The ACLU points to Oakland, which sought to expand its "Domain Awareness Center" at its port into a citywide surveillance system. The central command would monitor the city's many cameras and stream data from federal law-enforcement computers. The stated goal was something right out of a dystopian movie, where the Department of Pre-Crime was watching everything. Eager for the federal dollars and worried about the city's crime problem, city officials pushed for the system without widespread public engagement. The resulting backlash killed the project. ACLU's "model ordinance" might force policymakers to answer some crucial questions before it leads to privacy and other concerns.

For instance, these projects are driven by "free" federal money, which makes it easy for localities to downplay any ongoing costs. The proposed ordinance would require cities that pass it to complete a Surveillance Impact Report that details "the fiscal costs for the surveillance technology, including initial purchase, personnel and other ongoing costs, and any current or potential sources of funding."

It's easy to see the value in that approach, in all areas of government, even when such an ordinance wouldn't directly apply. For instance, when the San Diego Unified School District agreed to take a $730,000 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle from the feds, it sparked an angry debate about the militarization of police forces that led to the tank-like vehicle's return. (As an aside, the district claimed it would cost only $500 a year to maintain. What happens if the transmission goes kaput?)

Such questions should be answered methodically before the fact. Such an ordinance would create legally enforceable guidelines and protections for the use and sharing of collected data. That's basic, especially given the California Highway Patrol's recent scandal involving allegations that officers shared racy photos of female suspects.

The best way to push back against the imperceptible expansion of monitoring is to make the process more perceptible. If such technologies have valuable uses, their advocates should have no problem convincing the public to support them.

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  1. there begins to emerge a? society in which government may intrude into the secret regions of man's life at will.

    I don't know, that sounds like mansplaining to me.

    1. I know some wimminz whose "secret regions" I'd like to explore....

      Wait, I'm gettin' all cis-gendered patriarchal up in here....sorry.

      1. Burn him! And by "him" I mean a cis-gendered being.

    2. Better she-vacuate the femises!

  2. OT: Won't someone think about those poor police officers?

    1. Good article but he falls prey to the same mythology that many reason lids do

      The anticop bigots are nowhere a majority

      They are just loud as fuck

      Every poll shows the public is way more in line with how he wishes people felt

      We deal with outliers in our job a lot

      You can't ever let that infect you such that you think the small %age of frequent flyers represent the majority

      We see about 5% representing about 60% of hot calls

      1. You keep telling yourself that, Dunphy.

        1. Facts have no liberal, libertarian or conservative bias

          You'd be surprised how often people anonymously pay for our meals when we sit down to lunch

          Anonymous charity with no tax benefit is a pretty awesome indicator of support

          It only happens more frequently and justifiably so, to uniformed military

          FACTS always trump hysterical rhetoric

          1. "They are just loud as fuck"

            What's loud as fuck is the spate of violent dog-killing, camera-grabbing, charges-inventing, perjuring shitheels out there pretending to call themselves peace officers.

          2. You'd be surprised how often people anonymously pay for our meals when we sit down to lunch

            Can't we use the same logic that you used above?

            The anticop bigots are nowhere a majority

            They are just loud as fuck

            Maybe the people who like cops are also "loud as fuck."

            You might be surprised to learn that I hate it when cops are in my neighborhood; I have a dog, after all.

          3. Which of those "facts" you listed are well documented across a large study group? Oh! You were just presenting some of your anecdotes about local bootlickers paying for your meals as facts. Gotcha!

    2. Wow, I shouldn't have gone there, but I did find this very interesting post:

      And of course, the usual response from the cop-fellating commentariat there:

      The response simply made no sense at all.

    3. This is one big 'ol crock of shit right there.

    4. What a pathetic shitstain that cop is.

      I like how he equates using drugs with being a mugger or violent predator.

      If he doesn't care, he should quit. Maybe he could push a broom in a library or something more suited to his temperament.

  3. OT: but scary. No shit, from my Twitter feed just now....

    Steve Chapman followed you

    This is what I get for responding to Moynihan re: something he and Chapman were discussing. Damn....

    1. You shouldn't have said anything. Now he if he realizes it's you, he'll unfollow you.

      1. The tweet is coming from inside the house!

      2. He's in ur house, eatin ur brownies.

  4. I honestly don't know if there's anything we can do. To have this technology and expect cities to not use it seems like swimming against a tsunami. I think the best we can hope for is they don't keep video beyond a certain reasonable time. I'll let the rest of the commentariat pipe in on other ways it might exist but not be abused. I'm too distracted by the sound of pounding, splitting wood and sawzall's echoing throughout my house.

    1. I think the best we can hope for is they don't keep video beyond a certain reasonable time.

      Not going to happen. If there is one thing that governments historically hoard, it is information that can be used against the governed.

      1. They just define reasonable amount of time as 100 years.

    2. The license plate scanners are interesting

      I think the Volokh mosaic approach is the best to protect privacy and catch bad guys which are not mutually exclusive

      Iirc, medina, an east side suburb RECORDS AND RUNS EVERY SINGLE LICENSE PLATE as it enters the town

      Ironic, for the home of bill gates

      1. Well, that's Medina. I don't go where the clean cut, rich white folks go. If I even drove into Medina, I'd find myself on the floor of the police chief's office getting kicked, while he yells "Stay out of my beach community! You hear me Lebowski!?"

        1. Medina is just to funky and cold for me.

    3. I honestly don't know if there's anything we can do.

      I think I might agree. I had a page long retort, but the end result was agreement I think.

      1. Technology is a two way street. If the technology exists, you can't expect it to not be used. You just have to find some way to nip it in the bud early that it can't be abused.

        Which reminds me:

        Not sure if this got covered here on reason, but this is pretty earthquake-y news to me:

        Video: Washington Agencies Overwhelmed by Records Requests May Drop Body Cams

        Two Seattle area agencies are reconsidering their use of officer-worn video systems because of records requests from the owner of a YouTube account.

        The Poulsbo, Wash., police have been wearing body cameras for about a year, and the department says the results have been good.

        It's the same thing for Bremerton police, who finished a six-week pilot project this summer and expect to receive funding to start a regular program in 2015.

        But last month a new YouTube user site, set up by someone under the name "Police Video Requests," threw a monkey wrench into the works, according to KOMO TV.

        1. Short of posting all body camera video to public servers, there is no easy solution

          And talk about privacy concerns, imagine cops respond to your house for a domestic incident and next thing you know, the video footage is on the Internet

          Historically, the written reports are public record, so an argument could be made the video footage is too

          Even so, I support mandatory body camera usage by all Leo's in uniform patrol

        2. Is the takeaway here that cops are cool with body cams as long as they don't have to turn them on? Too hard for them to explain why all of the cams happened to malfunction? Or is it just laziness?

          1. Not that I interpret. It's essentially a massive records request that the police didn't think they could administratively deal with, so they're thinking of not going with body cams.

        3. Not sure if this got covered here on reason, but this is pretty earthquake-y news to me:

          Sounds to me like they should just make all video public by default.

          Being public servants and all.

          1. Well, to be fair, Dunphy (universe ends) makes a good point. A cops body camera is a video of YOU, not a video of the cop. I don't want my interaction with the police on the internet unless I die in a hail of bullets.

            1. It's a concern

              IMO the benefits outweigh the risks

              I'd LOVE to be allowed to wear one

              But we deal with a lot of people at their worst, most vulnerable etc

              Ever held a dead baby in your hands while you check for petechia?

              Counseled a married couple unable to cope with an out of control kid?

              Taken a rape victim to the hospital?

              Interrogated a man falsely accused of rape?

              Now imagine its on film and on the Internet

              When COPS filmed with me, they needed a a release to broadcast

            2. I don't want my interaction with the police on the internet unless I die in a hail of bullets.

              The security granted by the cop's camera always visible to the entire world far outweighs the costs in liberty, for me. Further, it's a cost that I can choose not to pay by choosing not to interact with police; in the event of an encounter in which I have no choice, I still prefer the security of the camera over relying on the integrity of the individual.

              1. . Further, it's a cost that I can choose not to pay by choosing not to interact with police;

                As you point out, the main problem with this statement is that interaction with the police is often not a choice. It can come at 3am in the manner of a flashbang being dropped into your baby's crib.

                If the cops come to your door asking you questions about child porn, do you really want that broadcast to the world?

  5. Has anyone else noticed that whenever a new street light goes up, or an old one is repaired, that they almost always have a camera added to them?

    1. Yes - I'm glad I live on a rural road without street lights.

    2. There are benefits to real-time stop light surveillance. I don't know that they outweigh the costs.

      1. Ironically, in lib Seattle they passed an ordinance forbidding footage to be accessed to investigate crimes

        Stop light violations? Yes

        Checking footage too see if a murdere's car could be placed at a scene of a crime? Nope

        Iirc, they were revisiting that ordinance

        1. Dude, you have way too much time on your hands for trolling H&R.

          1. Your tax dollars at work

            Not trolling.

            Just speaking truth to power against uninformed bigotry

            I'm a public servant on several fronts!,,

            1. I'm a public servant on several fronts!,,

              I'm only interested in servants on their backs.

              did lol though.

            2. Uniformed bigotry?

              1. That too!

                Record the cops and due when appropriate

                It's worked for me!!!!!!

                Boys civil redress and boys lawyers that take cases on contingency

                ImLOVE our civil court system!!!

                1. And 'SUE' when appropriate

      2. freedom vs security

        1. I meant to imply real-time traffic control, detecting & alerting paramedics in event of accidents, etc. There are objectively real potential benefits that (of course) the state will never take advantage of beyond "OMG YOU RAN A STOP LIGHT!!!!11one."

    3. Yep, five intersections within a mile of my house have been redone lately. All of them have cameras now.

      1. Many cop criticism are strangely silent with these cameras

        They can't racially profile, use favoritism to decide who gets a ticket, do a consent search of the car, etc

        Unsurprisingly, we've had some patrol officers caught running red lights and for the first time in their career, they got a traffic ticket!!!

        Unless they could show they were in route code 2 and used emer lights to go through the intersection, they had no excuse. Not only did they get the ticket, but it is an automatic internal affairs case

      2. My town got its first street light last year, and no camera. Of course we don't have a police force either. The town pays sheriffs and troopers to answer calls, though they mostly lurk behind the 45mph signs on the predominantly 55mph roads and give people speeding tickets.

        1. Hopefully they arrest dui's too! Although I am sure YOU learned your lesson

          1. Yeah, I learned my lesson alright. I learned that police routinely lie on their reports, lie to the citizens they are interacting with, and overcharge to ensure that poor people without lawyers have no choice but to take a plea bargain.

            1. Yeah, I learned my lesson alright. I learned that police routinely lie on their reports, lie to the citizens they are interacting with, and overcharge to ensure that poor people without lawyers have no choice but to take a plea bargain.

              Sorry to hear about your DUI man. But really, when a cop asks if you've been drinking, NEVER respond affirmatively. Always say "No sir," even if you're piss drunk and not driving. If you think the response you give might be a red flag, say "Lawyer" instead.

              By the time the public pretender arrives, you'll at least be sober enough to make better decisions about what to do.

              1. Rubbish

                I got pulled over twice for DUI in college, answered truthfully -yes, I had been drinking, passed the FST and was on my way

                1. Of course a caricature of a cop tells you to tell him the truth.

                  What could -possibly- go wrong?

              2. But really, when a cop asks if you've been drinking, NEVER respond affirmatively.

                Not always true. One time many years ago I had a couple drinks after my shift, then drove home only to find the power was out. All I wanted to do was take a shower. So I decided to drive to my girlfriends house. By then the drinks had sunk in and I knew I probably shouldn't have been driving, but I needed a fucking shower. I got pulled over, and I told the cop the truth. He gave me a break and let me leave the car and walk the rest of the way, since I was almost at her house.

                I got lucky.

                1. I got lucky.


            2. Bwahahaha!

              Show me your successful lawsuit for these allegations,

              Unlike you, I have sued successfully for police abuse
              Pbecause in my case it actually happened

              You were justifiably convicted for your crime and you are still but thirst

              Like many a nticop bigots the genesis of your bigotry was being called to account for your wrongs and being too fucking immature to deal with it, so blame the 'other'

              Very typical

              1. As I've said before, and I'm sure I'll say it again, it wasn't the DUI that pissed me off.

                What pissed me off was that the cop intentionally lied on the report to make the accident appear to be my fault, when it was caused by a 15yr old kid running a red light.
                The cop was doing a favor for the kid's dad who arrived at the scene shouting "Who's going to fix my fucking car?"
                After having a conference with the kid's father, the cop dismissed the witnesses out of hand because the truth would have conflicted with the fiction he was planning to put into the report.
                The result was me having to fix the car that ran a red light and then ran me over.
                That is what pissed me off, not the DUI.

                Thank you for again showing to everyone that you are a liar. Then again you are a cop, so calling you a liar is a bit redundant.

                1. Yes, butthurt 101

                  If you were wronged, SUE

                  it's worked for me!!!!!

                  1. It takes money to sue. Money that I didn't have. But you already knew this, which only further shows you to be dishonest since you knew I didn't have the coin to sue, yet you are saying my lack of a lawsuit proves the liar of a cop to be correct.

                    1. Not if you have a good case

                      My case was taken on CONTINGENCY

                      cost me NOTHING


                    2. Whatever Dunphy. You're still a liar for insisting I was angry about the DUI, though you know I was pissed for having to fix the car that hit me thanks to a liar of a cop, and I fully expect you to do it again. And again. And again...

                2. Worst part is that it's an "alcohol related accident."

                  Which everyone always assumes is the person's fault that had a drink.

        2. Duh, they need to hire more cops!

          ^^ I bet the above is exactly their reasoning.

          1. Wa state has among the lowest cops per capita in the country

            Reason number 456 why WASHINGTON IS BETTER!!!

            1. I bet the only crime you've got to respond to is suicide!

              1. I've responded to literally everything from murder to autoerotic asphyxiation to rape in progress to naked teenage mayhem to lots of instances of lawful self defense etc

                I've seen a guy shoot himself in the head from three feet away, rescued people from a fire, rescued a drowning in Hawaii etc

                It's a fucking awesome job

                Interesting as fuck

                1. Your caricature of Dunphy is hilarious.

              2. Suicide is not a crime btw... But it is painless

                1. See, this is how I know you aren't the real Dunphy.

                  1. This makes me lol

                    Again, par for the course

                    First I was accused of not bring a cop

                    I STILL get that

                    Now it's meta and I'm accused of not being me lol


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