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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The San Leandro City Council reviewed the camera proposal last week, and Chief Spagnoli cited Oakland's high crime rate and the potential for Oakland's Domain Awareness Center to displace crime into neighboring cities as the rationale for increasing San Leandro's surveillance capabilities. Councilman Michael Gregory, an Oakland native, questioned Spagnoli about her assertion that crime displacement could occur rapidly. "The displacement of crime from some of the traditional areas from West Oakland to East Oakland took decades," Gregory said. "How long do you think it will take this displacement to happen now?"

"I don't think it's going to take very long to displace their [Oakland's] crime," said Spagnoli. "We need to get out in front of this before this 150-camera system comes to Oakland," she added.

While the San Leandro City Council voted 5-2 to allow Spagnoli to proceed with the project and draw up a budget for review, councilmembers acknowledged the privacy concerns of residents who spoke out against the cameras and plate readers. Vice Mayor Jim Prola openly questioned the need for San Leandro to retain license plate records for a year, verbally sparring with Spagnoli and asserting his preference for revising the city's policies to keep video and license plate records for only ninety days. Other councilmembers voiced their preference for an external audit of SLPD license plate records, and restricting retention periods. Mayor Stephen Cassidy, who voted against approving SLPD's project, pointedly asked Spagnoli whether SLPD would use facial recognition software with the surveillance system.

"Facial recognition is part of the future of public safety," Spagnoli replied after asserting that SLPD didn't currently have that technology. Cassidy then stated he would seek to bar SLPD from using such technology when the department's video policy came up for review.

Contra Costa County cities are also using wide-scale video surveillance systems under the rubric of fighting both crime and terrorism. Richmond Police operate a 42-camera system that is monitored by retired police officers for 12 to 16 hours per day, while the Port of Richmond has 82 networked cameras equipped with motion- and image-recognition software. Pittsburg Police can monitor the city's 89 cameras live on their smartphones. Three-quarters of the city of San Pablo are monitored by surveillance cameras, license plate readers, and ShotSpotter gunshot detectors; most of the cameras are concentrated on Market Avenue and Rumrill Boulevard, which abut neighboring Richmond. The plan was approved by the city council in June, and will cost $900,000 over the next three years.

Oakland's Domain Awareness Center also has another purpose: to keep tabs on large political protests, which have become common in recent years. Renee Domingo, Oakland's director of Emergency Services and one of the city's point people on the surveillance center, wrote in an industry publication last month that "Oakland's long history of civil discourse and protest adds to the need" for the surveillance center, citing more than thirty demonstrations in recent years that have required a police presence.

Oakland Councilman Kalb took issue with Domingo's characterization that one of the purposes of the surveillance center was to track political protesters, and vowed to establish guidelines that would bar such actions. "This should not be for surveillance of people's legal political activities," Kalb said. "If there needs to be something explicit in the privacy policy to state that, which should be obvious, then we will make it say that."

But the City of Oakland has a long history of using covert operations to keep an eye on demonstrators. In the run-up to the 2003 anti-Iraq War demonstration at the Port of Oakland — which ended in a barrage of police projectiles being fired at demonstrators and arrests that cost the city $1 million in legal settlements — a state anti-terrorism information center distributed intel to Oakland police about demonstrators that conflated the monitoring of terrorist activities with keeping tabs on political protesters. The Oscar Grant protests of 2009 and 2010 also elicited large turnouts of police, as well as federal and state law enforcement, who recorded demonstrations, infiltrated meetings, and mingled with crowds while undercover. And the new trend toward expanded electronic surveillance will enhance the ability — and proclivity — of local law enforcement to track and monitor political activity.

The current technology available to law enforcement — surveillance cameras, license plate readers, location data provided by cellphone companies and through social media — also allows authorities to create a very detailed portrait of an individual's movements and associations. Unified surveillance systems like Oakland's surveillance center and NCRIC's database of license plate information from across Northern California create an environment where your movements could become an open book. "If a networked system of cameras has access to your movements, it can tell a tremendous amount about you," said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who works on surveillance issues. "If cameras are photographing you whenever you leave your apartment, your doctor's office, your political meetings, suddenly the government has a record of your movements, and that says a lot."

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