Atlantic Cities

The Sunny Side of Mass Surveillance

The Sunny Side of Mass Surveillance
REUTERS

Next year, Oakland, California, will launch something called the Domain Awareness Center, which will serve as a surveillance hub for Oakland-area law enforcement and their partners in the federal government. As The New York Times has reported, the center 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." Also on that list: Social media monitoring. 

As usually happens when government announces it's going to do something like this, privacy and civil liberties advocates are furious. And, as usually happens when privacy and civil liberties advocates get furious, Oakland officials are promising that the information will be used not to spy, but to aid criminal investigations. The Times provides this example of how the data center would synthesize and use information: 

[I]f 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.

Such technological aspirations are not unique to Oakland. New York City, Las Vegas, and Memphis all already have corporate-built data mining systems that they use to investigate crime. 

In case the significance of knowing how many A's games the thieves attended is not obvious, the implication is that police could learn mundane information about any driver in Oakland, and then do less than legal/ethical things with it, much the way some NSA employees have abused their powers by listening in on phone sex and spying on their crushes. Steve Spiker of the Urban Strategies Council summed up the concern tidily when he rhetorically asked the Times, "What happens when someone doesn’t like me and has access to all that information?”

A good way to answer that question is to examine abuses that are happening right now. Last year a Minnesota woman filed a federal lawsuit after learning that more than 100 police officers from agencies across her state had illegally viewed her driver's license in the Minnesota DMV database. Many of these (male) officers then harassed her with calls and texts. Similar incidents have happened in other states. Police have also illegally used GPS tracking devices

But as New York and other big cities have been demonstrating for years, police don't need technology to surveil and harass. In recent years, the NYPD has sent undercover officers to cricket games and mosques to spy on Muslims, and sent at least one officer to embed with the Occupy Wall Street movement

In other words, the abuses that that could occur under Big Data have been happening in cruder forms for years. Not only that, but many of the technologies that help feed systems like Oakland's Domain Awareness Center predate the Big Data movement: traffic cameras and ShotSpotter systems have been around since at least the mid-2000s, and newer tactics like social media monitoring are already widespread. According to a July 2012 survey by LexisNexis Risk Solutions, of 1,221 law enforcement agencies surveyed, 976 said they used social media to conduct investigations. 

As with all new crime fighting techniques, what matters most is not the technology, but the policies that govern its use. Take for example the ACLU's list of recommendations for police on-body cameras: With the right rules in place, on-body cameras can be used to reduce the use of excessive force, protect officers and departments from spurious lawsuits, and review and oversee SWAT teams. Without such a framework, the cameras are at best worthless, and at worst a new form of spying. 

New technology can also benefit the people being policed. Earlier this month some damning video footage of Philadelphia police officer Philip Nace harassing residents in a truly bizarre manner ended up on Youtube. Due the attention those two videos received, Nace has been pulled off street duty. If the case against Nace had relied solely on eyewitness testimony—which is both less compelling and less accurate than video data—he'd most likely still be on patrol. In St. Paul, meanwhile, Youtube footage was used to identify three men who bound and robbed a man at gunpoint and threatened to kill his two-year-old daughter. 

And for people who simply who can't reconcile themselves to the idea of being surveilled while in public, there will always be ways to beat the government's technology

Update: Privacy advocates in Oakland tell me I failed to capture the scope and the awfulness of the Domain Awareness Center. Twitter user @OKCouncil directed me to oaklandwiki.org, which reports that opposition to the center is based on the following: 

Video and data feeds from all over Oakland are to be aggregated and monitored at the DAC, then analyzed with license plate recognition software, thermal imaging and body movement recognition software, possibly facial recognition software, and more, all with absolutely no privacy or data-retention policies in place, or substantive debate at the committee or council level about the program.

The site contains extensive reporting from city council meetings, at which privacy advocates were given practically no time to relay their concerns. A letter from the ACLU of Northern California to the Oakland City Council makes a strong case that the DAC should not go forward without an extensive framework in place for protecting privacy, that rules for data retention (i.e. how long footage can be kept and what it can be used for) should be decided before the DAC is built, not during and definitely not after, and that the public should have a large say (certainly larger than its had) in all of this. Privacy advocates were right to rip me for not mentioning these issues. (For an even more comprehensive take on DAC, see this story from the Center for Investigative Reporting's Ali Winston.)

Another rebuttal comes from Twitter user @OaklandPrivacy, who pointed out that members of the Oakland Police Department have already violated the rules governing on-body cameras. What reason, then, do I have to believe in frameworks and policies as means to deter abuse? While the libertarian in me says that things like the DAC shouldn't exist, the realist in me says that oversight is a more realistic goal than preventing government from doing something. For instance: The odds of creating strict new rules for when police can use SWAT teams are not great, but they are infinitely greater than the odds of doing away with SWAT teams altogether. 

Top image: A Microdones company MD4-1000 vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicle is seen at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International exhibition in Washington, August 13, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed.

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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