ACLU Calls for More Public Scrutiny of Surveillance Systems
BART Deputy Police Chief Benson Fairow stands in the transit system's communications center. (Scott Shafer/KQED)
We are being watched. When we go through an airport, drive through a toll booth or use public transit, there are cameras. Lots and lots of cameras.
During an afternoon commute this week, some riders on the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, said they know they're being watched.
"It's weird to be watched," said Heather Dickison from El Sobrante. "But if it's for safety, then I guess part of it is because there's been a lot of violence maybe on BART and they wanna know the whole story."
Commuter Loren Crippin from Oakland said he also feels ambivalent about all that surveillance.
"I get nervous just seeing or hearing about cameras on all the time. On the other hand, I suppose there's an argument to be made about public safety. But it kind of makes me feel uneasy."
BART carries more than 400,000 riders a day. Keeping them safe requires a lot of watchful eyes, says BART Deputy Police Chief Benson Fairow.
"Don't hold me to it, but there's approximately 1,600 cameras in the system, " Fairow said this week while standing in one of BART's communication hubs. "No way they can all be monitored in real time, all the time."
As BART staff kept their eyes on five monitors with rotating images of BART stations, Fairow said that in his 20 years in law enforcement, people have slowly gotten used to being constantly recorded.
"Yeah, I think there's been a certain tolerance that has developed to it and as time goes on it wouldn't surprise me if the tolerance increases," Fairow acknowledged.
And post-9/11, it's no wonder. This week the ACLU of California -- after wading through years of public meeting agendas and minutes for city councils and county legislatures -- issued a report showing that at least 90 local governments use some form of surveillance.
The ACLU's Nicole Ozer said that, in most cases, there was little or no public input before it was used.
"Communities weren't even having a public conversation about whether or not to use surveillance technology," Ozer says. "Even basic transparency and accountability and oversight was the exception, not the rule, in California and it definitely needs to be the other way around."
Ozer said that with so many concerns about snooping by the federal government, or even companies like Google and Facebook, public agencies have an obligation to implement and follow some rules on surveillance. The report found this is pretty much not happening.
A prominent example of that went down earlier this year in San Jose. The city's Police Department quietly purchased a $7,000 drone with very little public discussion. The item was buried deep inside a City Council agenda with no public notice. And when word got out, there was a public uproar.
The SJPD backtracked a bit this week at a City Hall meeting of a citizens commission. Deputy Police Chief Dave Hober described the city's new high-tech gadget. He said it's mostly going to be used by the bomb squad to fly over suspicious packages a robot can't get to.
"It is not currently in use, and will not be used," Hober promised, "unless or until it is determined that this technology is right for San Jose, that the San Jose PD has obtained input from the community and stakeholders, and that the city attorney has reviewed the policies and procedures."
There was a wide range of opinions at the meeting. Robert Sandoval came down on the side of more public safety.
"I for one also, because of the high rate of crime that we have in our city currently, would support a unit like this," Sandoval said.
But Charlotte Casey, with the San Jose Peace and Justice Center, said a drone would only make people distrust the police.
"NSA spying on us. Google gathering our information. All these Big Brother scenarios also mean that the idea of a spy drone flying overhead is something that would make people wary," Casey warned.
Deputy Chief Hober did acknowledge the obvious.
"In hindsight, " he said, "we should have conducted stakeholder outreach prior to obtaining the (drone)."
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian chaired a privacy committee when he was in the state Senate. Next week, he'll introduce legislation modeled on the ACLU's recommendation, guiding county acquisition of surveillance technology. Simitian said it will also spell out the kinds of question that need to be asked first. Over the phone, Simitian rattled off some of the questions that should be asked.
"Do we really need the information?" he said "If so how are we going to use it? How are we going to protect people's privacy? How long are we going to keep it for? Who's going to have access? These are all important questions that need to be asked before we unleash the technology, not after."
That ACLU report found that over the past 10 years, local governments in California have spent at least $65 million on high-tech security systems. Brian Jackson analyzes technology and policing for the Rand Corp. think tank. He welcomes the public scrutiny recommended this week by the ACLU.
"These are the sort of trade-offs that you've got to have in a democracy, when technology is changing the capabilities of both private citizens and government organizations," Jackson said.
Of course technology is constantly changing the way law enforcement is conducted. BART is now encouraging riders to turn their phones into crime-fighting tools. An online video describes how.
"BART Police is (sic) offering a new way to discreetly report criminal and suspicion activity through a new app available both in IOS and Android is called BART Watch and is simple to use." The video goes on to show how the app allows riders to send photos, text information and ask for help.
Few BART riders even know about the app. But at least one commuter -- John Kern -- says he'd consider using it.
"I think that's awesome," Kern said. "It's definitely nice to keep people safe, and something implemented like that is probably a good sign for everyone."
BART's deputy chief, Fairow, understands the public's ambivalence about that privacy versus public safety trade-off. But it's clear where he comes down.
"In the end, civil liberties are very important, privacy is very important," Fairow said. "But I wouldn't want anybody to get hurt or killed either, so we need that equipment to be able to prevent that type of stuff from happening."
And without a doubt, that equipment is here to stay.