Privacy Fears Grow as Cities Increase Surveillance

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OAKLAND, Calif. -- Federal grants of $7 million awarded to this city were meant largely to help thwart terror attacks at its bustling port. But instead, the money is going to a police initiative that will collect and analyze reams of surveillance data from around town -- from gunshot-detection sensors in the barrios of East Oakland to license plate readers mounted on police cars patrolling the city's upscale hills.

The new system, scheduled to begin next summer, is the latest example of how cities are compiling and processing large amounts of information, known as big data, for routine law enforcement. And the system underscores how technology has enabled the tracking of people in many aspects of life.

The police can monitor a fire hose of social media posts to look for evidence of criminal activities; transportation agencies can track commuters' toll payments when drivers use an electronic pass; and the National Security Agency, as news reports this summer revealed, scooped up telephone records of millions of cellphone customers in the United States.

Like the Oakland effort, other pushes to use new surveillance tools in law enforcement are supported with federal dollars. The New York Police Department, aided by federal financing, has a big data system that links 3,000 surveillance cameras with license plate readers, radiation sensors, criminal databases and terror suspect lists. Police in Massachusetts have used federal money to buy automated license plate scanners. And police in Texas have bought a drone with homeland security money, something that Alameda County, which Oakland is part of, also tried but shelved after public protest.

Proponents of the Oakland initiative, formally known as the Domain Awareness Center, say it will help the police reduce the city's notoriously high crime rates. But critics say the program, which will create a central repository of surveillance information, will also gather data about the everyday movements and habits of law-abiding residents, raising legal and ethical questions about tracking people so closely.

Libby Schaaf, an Oakland City Council member, said that because of the city's high crime rate, "it's our responsibility to take advantage of new tools that become available." She added, though, that the center would be able to "paint a pretty detailed picture of someone's personal life, someone who may be innocent."

For example, if two men were caught on camera at the port stealing goods and driving off in a black Honda sedan, Oakland authorities could look up where in the city the car had been in the last several weeks. That could include stoplights it drove past each morning and whether it regularly went to see Oakland A's baseball games.

For law enforcement, data mining is a big step toward more complete intelligence gathering. The police have traditionally made arrests based on small bits of data -- witness testimony, logs of license plate readers, footage from a surveillance camera perched above a bank machine. The new capacity to collect and sift through all that information gives the authorities a much broader view of the people they are investigating.

For the companies that make big data tools, projects like Oakland's are a big business opportunity. Microsoft built the technology for the New York City program. I.B.M. has sold data-mining tools for Las Vegas and Memphis.

Oakland has a contract with the Science Applications International Corporation, or SAIC, to build its system. That company has earned the bulk of its $12 billion in annual revenue from military contracts. As the federal military budget has fallen, though, SAIC has diversified to other government agency projects, though not without problems.

The company's contract to help modernize the New York City payroll system, using new technology like biometric readers, resulted in reports of kickbacks. Last year, the company paid the city $500 million to avoid a federal prosecution. The amount was believed to be the largest ever paid to settle accusations of government contract fraud. SAIC declined to comment.

Even before the initiative, Oakland spent millions of dollars on traffic cameras, license plate readers and a network of sound sensors to pick up gunshots. Still, the city has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country. And an internal audit in August 2012 found that the police had spent $1.87 million on technology tools that did not work properly or remained unused because their vendors had gone out of business.

The new center will be far more ambitious. From a central location, it will electronically gather data around the clock from a variety of sensors and databases, analyze that data and display some of the information on a bank of giant monitors.

The city plans to staff the center around the clock. If there is an incident, workers can analyze the many sources of data to give leads to the police, fire department or Coast Guard. In the absence of an incident, how the data would be used and how long it would be kept remain largely unclear.

The center will collect feeds from cameras at the port, traffic cameras, license plate readers and gunshot sensors. The center will also be integrated next summer with a database that allows police to tap into reports of 911 calls. Renee Domingo, the city's emergency services coordinator, said school surveillance cameras, as well as video data from the regional commuter rail system and state highways, may be added later.

Far less advanced surveillance programs have elicited resistance at the local and state level. Iowa City, for example, recently imposed a moratorium on some surveillance devices, including license plate readers. The Seattle City Council forced its police department to return a federally financed drone to the manufacturer.

In Virginia, the state police purged a database of millions of license plates collected by cameras, including some at political rallies, after the state's attorney general said the method of collecting and saving the data violated state law. But for a cash-starved city like Oakland, the expectation of more federal financing makes the project particularly attractive. The City Council approved the program in late July, but public outcry later compelled the council to add restrictions. The council instructed public officials to write a policy detailing what kind of data could be collected and protected, and how it could be used. The council expects the privacy policy to be ready before the center can start operations.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California described the program as "warrantless surveillance" and said "the city would be able to collect and stockpile comprehensive information about Oakland residents who have engaged in no wrongdoing."

The port's chief security officer, Michael O'Brien, sought to allay fears, saying the center was meant to hasten law-enforcement response time to crimes and emergencies. "It's not to spy on people," he said.

Steve Spiker, research and technology director at the Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland nonprofit organization that has examined the effectiveness of police technology tools, said he was uncomfortable with city officials knowing so much about his movements. But, he said, there is already so much public data that it makes sense to enable government officials to collect and analyze it for the public good.

Still, he would like to know how all that data would be kept and shared. "What happens," he wondered, "when someone doesn't like me and has access to all that information?"

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 14, 2013 2:01 PM


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