Cities Embrace Surveillance State

Little Brother is watching.


On Tuesday, Anaheim became the latest in a growing list of California cities to install police-monitored cameras in public places—in this case, three public parks. The impetus: Two years ago, a 9-year-old girl was tragically shot to death near Brookhurst Community Park after getting caught in the crossfire between rival gangs.

Locals understandably want safer parks. The Register's account of the vote quotes critics who refer to George Orwell's 1984, about a dystopian future where "Big Brother is watching you." That's a legitimate fear, as cities embrace cameras virtually everywhere. Some localities, such as San Diego County, employ facial-recognition software to identify crime suspects, which is even creepier than anything in that famous novel.

Big Brother—some big, all-knowing leader—might not be watching us. But Little Brothers and Sisters—police officials, as they sip coffee in some headquarters monitoring room—certainly are watching. How free can we be if we're constantly under surveillance? Another quotation jumps to mind: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" It's Latin from poet Juvenal: "Who will guard the guards themselves?"

That's the biggest problem with these systems. "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," according to an American Civil Liberties Union analysis of nationwide public video surveillance. There's little oversight of how the cameras and databases are used, although Anaheim has sought input from civil libertarian groups.

Law enforcement scandals are disturbingly common. The Orange County District Attorney's Office is dealing with a "snitch" scandal. The Santa Ana Police Department received bad publicity recently from the state auditor for improperly entering people into its gang database. The Sheriff's Department has had black eyes, too, including a past sheriff sent to prison. Then there was the release of a shocking report in 2007 about the department's handling of a jailhouse beating death.

These are not related to videos per se, but a reminder of that Latin quotation. If the public needs to be monitored, who monitors the monitors? And who monitors the monitors overseeing the monitors? That latter question is not rhetorical flourish—the aforementioned report revealed disturbing facts about the people in charge of overseeing the police.

That's not to dismiss all uses of cameras. Body cameras worn by patrol officers have been amazingly effective at cutting down on abusive behavior by police and by the people with whom they interact. Cameras have ensnared cops whose stories don't jibe with the facts and they've also exonerated cops facing false accusations. These cameras, however, are a far cry from the general monitoring of our public spaces. They involve the specific monitoring of interactions between police and the public. In those cases, it's entirely appropriate for the incidents to be caught on camera.

Of course, surveillance cameras have helped catch criminals. We're used to being on camera when we go into privately owned public venues, such as stores, hotels, bars and concert halls. So it's not an entirely clear-cut situation. Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, also concerned about a slippery slope toward excessive public monitoring, reminded me that some of the city's parks are out of control. He pointed to the Hawthorne Effect, where people behave differently when they know they are being monitored.

There's little expectation for privacy in a city park. I'm not sure about Anaheim's parks, but the ones near me are hotbeds for crime, homelessness, public defecation and drug use. But where does it end? "The City Council was also open to a future phase integrating into one monitoring network existing cameras at traffic lights, City Hall, Angel Stadium and other city-owned facilities," according to the newspaper. How long before we're always on camera every time we leave the house?

The report noted that 10 to 15 officers will "remotely monitor the cameras," and will employ loudspeakers to address people in the park. That's a lot of people to monitor three parks. It's also a lot of money—$460,000—to install 21 to 30 cameras. It's only government money, but I'm guessing a computer geek could get the job done for a fraction of that cost.

This raises another more practical concern. Are police more effective sitting in a room and watching monitoring screens of far-off locations, or are they better off engaging in on-the-ground community policing? Instead of bellowing orders over a sound system, shouldn't they be patrolling the park and talking with the people who frequent it?

Then again, it's harder to patrol parks and work with residents than it is to sit far away in a room watching a screen. That brings to mind yet another quotation, from Orson Welles' 1958 movie, Touch of Evil: "A policeman's job is only easy in a police state." As the city expands its program further, officials ought to worry less about making police jobs easy and more about protecting their residents in a way that also protects their privacy.

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  1. Philadelphia PA: In my neck of the city, we push hard for private surveillance. Our neighborhood sits in-between suburban junkies coming from I-95 and the bridges to the heroin market which is a 6 minute walk away on foot. Burglaries of residential homes have plummeted since we have lobbied for police patrol units but also the installation of private cameras on residential rowhomes on our most problematic blocks. Our goal: Every block in the entire neighborhood has a lens, in all directions. So yes, it is Stalag 13 in the sense that when you step outside, a hard drive somewhere is recording your movement.

    But they’re privately-owned bytes. To thwart that legally you’d have to make an argument banning public photography in public places–surely invasive of free liberties. Residents who want to get a subsidy from the org I belong to must agree to participate in Town Watch to a degree and also register their cameras if they want us to subsidize their cost.

    The story is the same. The people on any given block who object to cameras go knocking on the doors of their neighbors who do have cameras, because someone broke into their car and stole shit. Apparently their objection to surveillance withered when their own personal property was jeopardized.

    Which is why we have cameras.

    1. But they’re privately-owned bytes.

      Which is totally different from government surveillance, which is conducted for a single organization with enough power and resources to the destroy anyone’s life. Government surveillance uses taxpayer money and is more ubiquitous when you consider that it is a single organization doing the surveillance. We can put any limits we want on the government, since it’s using our money and is supposed to follow the Constitution.

      We shouldn’t let the government install surveillance equipment everywhere in public places, regardless of whether or not it decreases crime. It will allow for whistleblowers, political opponents, activists, lawyers, journalists, etc. to be more easily tracked and destroyed, and will certainly be used that way if history is any indication (and it is).

      And while people may not have a valid expectation that other people will not be able to spot them in a public place, they have a valid expectation that the government will not conduct mass surveillance on them using omnipresent, accurate, and cheap surveillance equipment; the differences between the two situations are so large that comparing them is not valid. You just can’t treat someone seeing you as the same as government surveillance equipment recording your every move.

      1. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail,,,,,,,


      2. But at the base of it, that’s not a problem w surveillance, that’s a problem w how it’ll be used?which in turn is a problem about victimless crime laws. If there were no victimless crime laws, would you still object to surveillance of public spaces by gov’t? How do you destroy whistleblowers, etc. if they aren’t doing anything illegal?

    2. Put cops on foot patrol. Cops hate foot patrol but foot patrols prevents the isolation bubble some police are in because they are driving in a police car with windows rolled up.

      1. Winner!!

        They could also lose a few pounds so they can actually do police stuff.

      2. People laugh at bike patrols but bike patrols (or moped) are the way to go.

        Just leave the short shorts behind and, for God’s sake, no Segways.

        You can have a pair of cruisers for the shift – one for the supervisors and one for support (paddywagon, big guns, etc) and everyone else is out on bike. For a 100k plus pension spiking they can suck it up.

        1. Bikes in CLE in winter? Haha! You really do hate the pigs.

    3. My best friend’s sister makes $89 an hour on the internet . She has been out of a job for six months but last month her check was $14750 just working on the internet for a few hours. Go this website and click tech tab to start your work… Now this website…

  2. It’s also a lot of money?$460,000?to install 21 to 30 cameras. It’s only government money, but I’m guessing a computer geek could get the job done for a fraction of that cost.

    I can see why you’d think so, but there are a lot of costs you’re probably not considering. Any solution done by “a computer geek” for “a fraction of the cost” is not going to be hardened for continuous outdoor use and resistance to vandalism. A bunch of GoPros bolted to trees is going to be non-functional in a matter of months. Also consider disk storage systems for probably years worth of footage, commercial grade servers, custom software for monitoring, scanning and searching the images. $460k is within the range I would expect. I work in a comparable sector and I’ve had deals hit that with far less hardware and physical installation/maintenance costs than would be required for this project.

    But to the real point: mass government surveillance is an abomination. I think the benefits of not making every public place a panopticon outweigh the crime risks.

    1. a decent surveillance setup is sort of spendy.

  3. In some cities across America we are in reality living in an out door prison.

    1. That’s the crux of this whole issue.

      Many people do not want to fight for freedom nor accept the prices for freedom. Once price for freedom is no cameras to capture bad guys images because it captures innocent people’s images too. Another price is that there will be bad people among the good people in a free society.

      1. What’s wrong w capturing innocent people’s images? Hey, here’s someone being innocent!

  4. I don’t see what the big deal is – they’ll only be monitoring criminals, not regular folks like you and me. It’s like with the panic over the NSA “spying on everybody” – they’re not spying on everybody, they’re only spying on terrorists. They’re watching and listening to you only to make sure there’s no terrorists or criminals sneaking up on you, hiding in your cellphone or computer or your backpack or waiting to waylay you as you stroll into the adult bookstore and casually browse the gay porno magazines.

    1. “I don’t see what the big deal is – they’ll only be monitoring criminals, not regular folks like you and me.”

      Speak for yourself. Not everyone here–probably nobody but you–is a horseshoenecked, weakwilled goody-two-shoes. Most of us are criminals. And irregular as the dickens.

  5. Public space. I truly don’t see the objection, nor do I see anything in the BoR which would prohibit this.

    Now, the routine invasion of our private spaces, that’s where my outrage is directed.

    1. I think you misunderstand what the BoR, and rights in general are.

      Its not ‘what does the BoR prohibit’, its ‘Show me where in the constitution the government is granted this *privilege*’.

      The BoR is not a list of rights granted to you. Its a *portion* of the full, unenumerated list of rights you have simply for being a person. The rest of the constitution is a list of the duties and privileges extended to the government so that it can protect your rights.

      So, IMO, before a government agency could roll out a new technology it should put out for debate and a vote as to whether or not the citizens will allow it to use that tech to do its job. None of this ‘our job is to fight crime and so we get to decide unilaterally’.

      If the locals want the cops to have a camera on every street corner then they should be required to *affirm* that and the cops should not be rolling this shit out on their own.

      1. The days of enumerated powers and unenumerated rights are long gone. The government can do anything it wants as long as it isn’t expressly prohibited (and even that is up to interpretation by the Nazgul). And we are only allowed to ask permission and obey orders.

      2. If the locals want the cops to have a camera on every street corner then they should be required to *affirm* that and the cops should not be rolling this shit out on their own.

        I would suppose that would depend upon each state constitution, no?

        I agree that there is nothing in the US Constitution giving the Feds the power to surveil citizens, but 10A allows the States to if their ratified constitutions permit it.

        1. Sure – but that sort of required the citizens to *affirm* that they want their local government’s to have that privilege.

          1. And no ‘reading the penumbra’s’ or shit like that when it comes to what the government is allowed to do.

            EIther the state constitution specifically allows all forms of surveillance or specifically allows cameras – or the shit isn’t allowed.

            No need to wait for the courts and their ‘reasonable expectation’ bullshit. If its authorized, fine. If its not you need to get that authorization – even if it means a state constitutional convention – or you don’t do it.

            The only reason cops aren’t running around with IR cameras to look inside your home is because the courts nixed that – but that can run a dog along the sidewalk in front.

          2. Sure – but that sort of required the citizens to *affirm* that they want their local government’s to have that privilege.

            To a point. State constitutions were obviously around before cameras, so if the state constitution allows cops to surveil citizens in public, I see little difference between a camera and eyeballs (except persistence). I’d say if the citizenry wanted to further limit the local governments they may certainly do so by statute (or amendment). But positive affirmation to every new technology would be extremely cumbersome. I can see how you’d consider it a feature, rather than a bug, but what constitutes new technology? If there is a new belt that holds their pants up better so they can better chase down evil reefer junkies, does the public need to approve it? And is a vote to increase their funding approval to buy new belts?

            If you don’t want it either pass a statute prohibiting it or limit their funding so they can’t afford it.

            1. I see a big difference. In any case – the *method* of surveillance should be voted on even if the idea that cops can watch you is already enshrined. Doesn’t mean the people want cops to use a camera.

              The default assumption I want built in is that government has to ask for permission for everything. If its new then they need to clear it with the public. None of this ‘its just an extension of/more efficient way to do’ what we’re already doing.

              Maybe we don’t want it done more efficiently. Some people buy off-the rack because its more efficient, some people demand bespoke tailoring and damn the cost. It should be *the public’s* decision and not the governments.

              I really don’t care about ‘cumbersome’ when it comes to government. The government could use a few more really good stumbling blocks in their path. It might tone down all the attempts to ‘protect’ me that end up screwing me over.

              I see ‘efficient’ government as a bug, not a feature. It should be damn difficult to get anything done by government – and so anything they try to do should be damn important.

              1. And you can’t limit their funding – that just encourages predatory behavior from them. Civil asset forfeiture, shifting focus from violent and property crimes to code enforcement, etc.

                You and I? We get get to do anything we want that isn’t specifically prohibited. Government? They only get to do what is specifically allowed. And if the people can’t be arsed to get around to allow it, who suffers? The very people who didn’t care enough in the first place.

        2. The fourth amendment applies to the states, and it could easily be argued that conducting mass surveillance on the populace by installing surveillance equipment everywhere in public places violates it. The reality is that these surveillance systems are cheap, accurate, ubiquitous, and automatic, which means they are entirely different from someone spotting you in public. It makes sense to have one set of standards for these surveillance systems (i.e. don’t allow them at all), and another set of standards for normal people seeing or recording you.

          The ‘no expectation of privacy in public places’ standard is far too simplistic and simply does not apply well to mass surveillance.

    2. I agree that the G prolly does have the power to do so, but I disapprove of the action regardless.

    3. The problem is that in these conditions, the recordings become property of petty bureaucrats, and the content is revealed when it suits their purposes and concealed when it stands against them. So, there is a record, when it is to their advantage. If the records were somehow immediately transferred to an outside storage where they were entirely and freely available to anyone, this problem could be avoided, but of course they would never go for something like that. For what it’s worth–I would trust any citizen with all surveillance records of me; I would trust no public servant with any.

  6. I’ve noticed around there that whenever they repair on install a traffic light, a camera always goes on top. They don’t use them for tickets that I know of. So what are they for?

    1. Traffic flow monitoring is what I’ve always heard, so they can tweaking the timing of the lights. No clue if that’s true or not.

      1. I am sure that is true. But adjusting traffic flow does not require high definition pictures. So low def only.

    2. “So what are they for?”
      Wasting your tax dollars.

    3. To my understanding, it’s just a sensor that doesn’t keep any video long-term. The control box uses the cameras to determine when to change the lights. It’s a lot cheaper and more reliable than burying those metal grate magnetic sensors in the road.

      1. Then why do they do that in cities with their own police departments, but when they installed a street light in my small town without one they used the buried magnetic sensors?

        1. Institutional momentum? Longstanding contract? I don’t know.

          Where I live, there is no municipal government or police force (only state troopers and county cops), no speed cameras, no red light cameras, no surveillance boxes. Yet most of the traffic signals have those little cameras but no magnetic sensors. Yet they will change on a dime if I pull up to a red light at off hours. And they won’t change from green if no one is waiting on the cross street.

          1. Most of my experience with them is coming up on a green light I can see from a half-mile away, watching the light stay green until I’m almost to the intersection, then turning red and forcing me to come to a complete stop, then letting the car that’s been waiting in the crossroad for a full minute as I covered that half mile go, then immediately turning green again.

            When the damn thing could have let that driver through with enough time to spare that I wouldn’t have even needed to slow down.

            1. I’m pretty sure even the sensor-based lights have minimum green time, especially for the “primary” street. So what happens is that, as you approach, the sensors are saying to switch but the minimum time hasn’t elapsed yet. As you get closer, the time elapses and the light starts switching, right before the sensors detect you coming.

              1. I don’t think so as this particular road is one of several where its a high speed route crossed by the occasional road.

                So there’s nearly 5 miles between the stop lights and the lights on the main road stay green (during the night) *unless* there’s someone wanting to cross. So the light in my direction would have been green for several minutes when the other guy came up to the intersection. Not only does it make me stop (and him wait for me to stop) but if you’re *crossing* you can end up waiting two minutes (with no other traffic) before the light will change for you.

                Its freaking insane and this is not the only place I’ve encountered lights like that.

                1. Basically, if it was ‘minimum green time for the primary’ I would not be encountering this situation 99% of the time.

          2. Where I live, there is no municipal government or police force (only state troopers and county cops), no speed cameras, no red light cameras, no surveillance boxes.

            We have a municipal government, but none of the other things you mention. They contract out to the county and state to have someone available to answer emergency calls. That means they don’t pass petty ordinances because they have no way to enforce them. I like it that way, as do most of the residents, and the town council and manager understand.

            Yet most of the traffic signals have those little cameras but no magnetic sensors.

            There is a difference between a camera and an optical sensor. I see both in the city, and neither on this light. (We only have one street light, and only got it a couple years ago)

            Maybe yours have those because, lacking a municipal government, the state put them in.

            1. Wouldn’t surprise me if the state required them on all new installs – and they aren’t actually hooked up to anything.

  7. “Some localities, such as San Diego County, employ facial-recognition software to identify crime suspects, which is even creepier than anything in that famous novel.”

    He has apparently never read the book.

  8. This raises another more practical concern. Are police more effective sitting in a room and watching monitoring screens of far-off locations, or are they better off engaging in on-the-ground community policing? Instead of bellowing orders over a sound system, shouldn’t they be patrolling the park and talking with the people who frequent it?

    This was instantly my first thought. If they’re going to hire 10-15 officers to watch the screens, they could also just put those same officers in the parks which would be a far larger deterrent than a few cameras and a loudspeaker for them to yell at the perpetrator to take off their mask so they can I.D. them.

    Duh, McFly!

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  10. RE: Cities Embrace Surveillance State
    Little Brother is watching.

    Little brother spying on me too?
    Isn’t that wonderful?
    At least The State keeps surveillance on all us little people in the family.
    I feel better already.

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