We Are Being Watched 

Our fear of another 9/11 resulted in the erosion of our privacy rights. And now our fear of crime is pushing the surveillance state to a whole new level.

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But expanded electronic surveillance has also garnered widespread support from city residents who are fed up with crime and are willing to trade their privacy rights and civil liberties for the chance of being safer — much as Americans have done throughout the past decade in the fight against terrorism.

"People who probably in a 'normal' or less fearful crime-ridden situation would not think about wanting more cameras, but in the reality of today, I'm getting people saying, 'Can't we get more cameras in these places?'" said Dan Kalb, who represents North Oakland (one of the city's less crime-impacted neighborhoods) on the city council. "They want to be able to walk back from BART to their homes — four blocks — without fearing having to do it. People are taking cabs from Rockridge BART home. It's a shame that it's gotten to that point."

While much of the official rhetoric about the surveillance center has revolved around Oakland's high crime rate, a substantial body of research reveals that video surveillance does not impact violent crime. In London, where there are 4.2 million surveillance cameras, police studies last decade concluded that the expansion of the surveillance state had not resulted in decreased crime.

Furthermore, video surveillance by law enforcement raises concerns about racial profiling. In Lansing, Michigan, an independent study of surveillance cameras concluded that black residents were twice as likely to be under continual surveillance than white residents.

Oakland's surveillance center also will likely make use of the cameras that belong to regional transit agencies. Documents prepared by SAIC for the Oakland City Council indicate that traffic cameras along regional freeways and exits belonging to Caltrans and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission are targets for inclusion in the surveillance center. Cameras in the city's eight BART stations are also likely to be included. A little-noticed provision of AC Transit's Bus Rapid Transit plan for International Boulevard is the installation of video cameras at each BRT station along the thoroughfare, turning East Oakland's main artery into one of the most heavily monitored streets in the city. It is not clear whether AC Transit cameras will be included in the surveillance program as well.

Another surveillance technology that has been widely adopted in the Bay Area is Automated License Plate Readers, which use infrared optical character recognition software paired with cameras, which are either mounted on vehicles or installed at fixed locations. The devices can log thousands of license plates during an eight-hour patrol shift. At least 32 law enforcement agencies use plate readers in the Bay Area, including the Alameda County Sheriff's Office and the Berkeley, Oakland, San Leandro, Fremont, and Livermore police departments. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which operates seven major bridges in the Bay Area, also uses plate readers to record toll violators, and has amassed hundreds of millions of records since 2005.

The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center also signed a $340,000 agreement with the Silicon Valley firm Palantir last year to construct a database of license plate records flowing in from police using the devices from fourteen counties, running from California's Central Coast to the Oregon Border. The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed the existence of this database earlier this summer. According to contract documents, the database will be capable of handling at least 100 million records and be accessible to local and state law enforcement across the region, including federal authorities. To date, San Leandro, Milpitas, Daly City, and San Francisco police have memoranda of understanding with NCRIC, while Oakland, the CHP, Walnut Creek, Alameda, and Piedmont also participate in the program.

License plate readers are valued by law enforcement for the detail they provide about people's movements. And because there are no laws concerning how long these data can be stored, law enforcement agencies have an incentive to keep such records in perpetuity — as is the case in Berkeley, Oakland, and Fremont. The Alameda County Sheriff's Office retains its license plate records for five years. However, there are not only doubts about the value of retaining such revealing records for long periods of time, but also questions about the impacts on privacy rights. The California Highway Patrol, which uses more than one hundred plate readers statewide, retains license plate scans for sixty days and then deletes them if they are not linked to a criminal investigation. CHP documents state that "indefinite retention of LPR data can be counterproductive ... can contribute to priva[cy] concerns," and "increase the risk of misuse or accidental disclosure."


The fear of crime spilling over from Oakland has been the impetus behind the rapid deployment of surveillance cameras and license plate readers in neighboring cities. This June, the Piedmont City Council approved a plan to spend approximately $700,000 to install 39 cameras equipped with license plate readers along the wealthy enclave's borders with Oakland. Piedmont's plan is not the first of its kind; in 2010, Tiburon set up plate readers on the two roads leading in and out of town. Piedmont Police Chief Ricki Goede pointed to a 50 percent increase in burglaries (from 90 in 2011 to 135 in 2012) in the town of 11,000 residents as the justification for turning to heightened electronic surveillance.

Oakland's neighbor to the south, San Leandro, is considering a pilot project proposed by Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli to set up two surveillance camera installations of four to seven cameras and one license plate reader each at crime "hot spots" around the city. The surveillance cameras will not be monitored live, unlike Oakland's system. San Leandro police currently have surveillance cameras at city hall and the police station, as well as three vehicles equipped with license plate readers. SLPD also has access to the city's red light cameras and eighty traffic cameras — but the city's video networks are not linked.

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