Thursday, January 18, 2007

Surveillance in San Francisco

Apparently I am going to have police spy cameras around the corner from my house. The Police Commission voted 5-0 last night to install to 25 new cameras at "high-crime street corners." They call it a "pilot program" but how often do cops turn in high tech toys once they get them?

The City Hall hearing seemed to be a scripted circus in which people played rather predictable roles.

News media set up their wand trucks in Civic Center Plaza, ready to do their live stand ups. "Breaking News at 10 pm!"

Citizens waiting to speak out, on both sides, filled the City Hall hearing room and an overflow room down the hall. I have to admit to a fondness for Room 400: in that place, during Gulf War I, the District Attorney and a bevy of pro bono corporate associate volunteers attempted to prosecute several hundred of us for having been arrested in antiwar protests. A city judge threw them out on their ears insisting they'd have to prove each individual had done something to break the peace besides having been arrested. The SFPD was unable to produce any evidence.

I was glad to see old friends there to stick up for civil liberties and privacy protections...

and not surprised to see the Chief of Police herself, along with a gent who seemed to be one of the organizers of the police-sponsored neighborhood anti-crime "community organizations." These groups had done an excellent job of turnout, plastering their community supporters with "no mas crime" stickers. There was no doubt about the sincerity and commitment of the large crowd, on both sides of the issue.

The crowd kept spilling out into the hallway.

For many of us, pushed into the overflow room, the hearing looked like this -- not a pleasant sight. I have to admit that I bailed early on. Don't think I missed anything novel.

So what was the show really about? San Francisco politicians of all stripes are under a lot of pressure to "do something" about crime. Not having any solutions, they posture.

The Board of Supervisors had passed, and passed again over a mayoral veto, a plan to put more cops on foot patrol. The Mayor and his Chief of Police, not to mention the cops' union, want to substitute high tech tools for expensive police officers, hence the camera scheme.

Since the city has no money for cameras, it would have to get the cash from the Feds. That rings more than a few alarm bells for me, since San Francisco currently has a a blogger/journalist, Josh Wolf, locked up for refusing to turn over his tapes from a little demonstration that ended with a burning police car. In state courts, he would enjoy the protection of a shield law. But the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force went after him on the grounds that the Feds paid for the police car. If the Feds pay for the cameras, does that mean they have right to whatever footage results?

The ACLU pointed folks attending last night's hearing to some evidence that surveillance cameras simply don't do the job they are promoted to do.
  • In the U.K., the average citizen is caught on film by a surveillance camera 300 times a day. Yet a study showed no decrease in crime in 13 of 14 areas filmed.
  • According to the Washington Times,

    "Generally, the [Maryland] State's Attorney's Office has not found them to be a useful tool to prosecutors," office spokeswoman Margaret Burns said. "They're good for circumstantial evidence, but it definitely isn't evidence we find useful to convict somebody of a crime."...

    "We have not used any footage to resolve a violent-crime case," she said.

    Miss Burns said police sometimes misidentify suspects because the cameras produce "grainy" and "blurry" images. "We have had that happen more than once," she said.

  • In addition to being not very useful, the cameras have multiple potentials for abuse. Police and their friends have been known to sell information that they had collected which was not, in itself, incriminating to interested third parties. In San Francisco, we had the under-reported story of the policeman and the fantasy spy who sold stolen data on community groups to the ADL.
So there's a lot wrong and not much right with putting up surveillance cameras to "fight crime."

But the real issue goes beyond wasteful "security theater" that politicians and cops practice to blunt citizen criticism. Technical consultant Bruce Schneier spelled out what I think are the real issues in a recent op-ed:

Wholesale surveillance is fast becoming the norm. Northern California's FasTrak toll-collection system tracks cars at tunnels and bridges. We can all be tracked by our cell phones. Our purchases are tracked by banks and credit-card companies, our telephone calls by phone companies, our Internet surfing habits by Web-site operators. ...

...What we need are corresponding mechanisms to prevent abuse, and that don't place an unreasonable burden on the innocent. Throughout our nation's history, we have maintained a balance between the necessary interests of police and the civil rights of the people. ...

Wholesale surveillance is not simply a more efficient way for the police to do what they've always done. It's a new police power, one made possible with today's technology and one that will be made easier with tomorrow's. And with any new police power, we as a society need to take an active role in establishing rules governing its use. To do otherwise is to cede ever more authority to the police.

I think he's right. There will be no preventing technical fixes like these cameras. But so far, we do still live in at least a pseudo-democracy, and so we need to force our politicians to regulate, inhibit, and punish any abuse of the new power that new technologies give the authorities.


Heather Flanagan said...

Here is a video of the actual reincarnation of Gandhi (I almost wrote Buddha, woops!) I thought you might be interested:


Arcturus said...

heard about this on kpfa. larry Bensky did a little segment on the issue in general as well. appreciate the personal write-up. it's a frightening trend.

& thank you!! for mentioning josh wolf - i've been meaning to post something for a while now, but haven't yet

forget now if this is in yr piece, but his website still gets updates:

peace . . .

sfmike said...

As somebody who lives a block from 16th & Mission pointed out, all this is going to do is move open criminal behavior into people's streets and doorways nearby where there aren't cameras, which is just going to make everything all that more unsafe. And of course we can't depend on the San Francisco Police Department to defend anybody outside of a very narrow demographic (I'm thinking Pacific/Presidio Heights and anybody associated with Sacred Heart High School).

Anonymous said...

Forgive the late posting. I couldn't agree w/ you more. San Francisco, once Ground Zero for individual rights, has become a police state. Cameras are already on buses and Bart, w/ warnings that even your conversation may be recorded! Look on any downtown street - cameras are already everywhere. Photographers are arrested for shooting pictures in Bart stations. The city has changed into some place I was happy to leave.

Harald said...

The City of San Francisco installing Surveillance Cameras in Public Areas

San Francisco recently has begun to install surveillance cameras to monitor public spaces in the hope of reducing ever more increasing crime. Surveillance cameras make some citizens feel safer in their neighborhoods and might capture clear evidence of committed crimes; on the other hand, surveillance cameras have not been proven to be effective, pose ethical questions and are susceptible to abuse. Is it worth spending our tax dollars on surveillance cameras, or could the money be used for more effective crime prevention programs?
An article in a recent issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian refers to two studies that proved surveillance cameras do not reduce crime. One study from Britain showed that Britain has one camera for every 13 citizens, yet the changes in crime rates after the installation of these cameras were statistically insignificant. Another study done by the University of Cincinnati showed that the only effect surveillance cameras had was shifting crimes to other areas; however, they did not reduce overall crime. Exactly that seems to already be happening here in San Francisco. An article from the online publication reads: “In July 2005, for example, the City installed cameras at the corner of Eddy and Buchanan – but now the City wants to install them just three blocks away at McAllister and Buchanan.” If the crime shifts from street corner to street corner and the city responds by installing more and more cameras, we will soon have our entire city blanketed with security cameras.
Let us picture a future with security cameras on every street corner and then look at the main reasons why the American Civil Liberty Union opposes surveillance cameras.
The first reason the ACLU opposes security cameras is that they have not been proven effective. More importantly though, the ACLU opposes security cameras because they are susceptible to abuse. These cameras present a tempting opportunity for criminal misuse by law enforcement’s “bad apples”. In 1997, for example, a police officer was caught monitoring gay-clubs in Washington and recording the license plate numbers of their patrons. He then searched databases to find out which of these gay men were married to women in order to blackmail them.
An even more frightening scenario would be an entire law enforcement agency abusing security camera systems. It would not be the first time that the FBI or other agencies have spied on political activists and kept illegal databases in this country. Imagine the power these cameras could give an institution that wants the names of every single person who marches in an anti-war rally and wants to run instant background checks on them. With technology advancing at a breathtaking pace and face recognition technology already a reality, we might be finally arriving at George Orwell’s predicted future that he described in his novel 1984.
Another factor to consider is the possibility of someone abusing a security camera system for personal reasons. One investigation by the Detroit Free Press showed that Michigan law enforcement officers used their camera system to stalk women. Expert studies from Britain showed that most camera system operators are male and that they targeted one in 10 women for entirely voyeuristic reasons.
After looking at some of the possible abuses, it is also worth pointing out that there are no checks and balances in place for the operation of these security camera systems. Before we install any more security cameras we need to establish very clear rules and regulations so that the described abuses can be prevented.
It is understandable that people living in crime-ridden neighborhoods would support surveillance cameras. In some cases witnesses of crimes are too afraid of retaliation to testify against the suspects. Security cameras might capture clear evidence of committed crimes and lead to arrests.
The same people living in these crime-ridden neighborhoods also support alternative measures like increased street lighting and more police foot patrol. Studies have actually shown that increased street lighting reduces crimes by twenty percent and they have also shown that regular police foot patrol reduced crime. With clear evidence showing these measures to be effective in crime reduction, the need to spend resources on controversial surveillance cameras is questionable.
Before the city of San Francisco installs any more cameras, it should take a hard look at the many possibilities in which these cameras could be abused. Hopefully the city would realize that there are no regulations and rules in place to prevent these abuses.
San Francisco has two options. It can put money into crime prevention programs that work, like more street lighting and regular police foot patrol. Or it can continue on its course: wasting money for controversial surveillance camera systems that at best help solve some crimes after they have taken place.

Harald Frohlich

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