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:
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.
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.