Data surveillance centers: Crime fighters or ‘spy machines?’

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, debates cre­at­ing a one-stop shop for video/data surveillance
Oppo­nents fear the abil­i­ty to track peo­ple with “the press of a but­ton” will threat­en civ­il liberties
Cen­tral data sur­veil­lance pos­es seri­ous pri­va­cy ques­tions for mil­lions around the globe
Oper­a­tions in Lon­don, Boston, Rio have result­ed in suc­cess stories

(CNN) — Some res­i­dents of Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, fear their com­mu­ni­ty is cre­at­ing a monster.

The city calls it the Domain Aware­ness Cen­ter, but oppo­nents call it a “spy machine” and a poten­tial “tool of injustice.”

Known as “the DAC,” it’s a pro­posed cen­tral sur­veil­lance facil­i­ty where author­i­ties can mon­i­tor the Port of Oak­land and the city’s air­port to pro­tect against poten­tial terrorism.

But the broad­er issue of cen­tral­ized data sur­veil­lance pos­es seri­ous pri­va­cy ques­tions for mil­lions of peo­ple in cities around the globe.

In March, more than 100 wor­ried Oak­land res­i­dents wait­ed past mid­night to com­plain about it dur­ing a City Coun­cil meet­ing. Stand­ing at the mic, Maya Shweiky, a self-described pub­lic school teacher and Mus­lim, warned law­mak­ers their pro­pos­al would be used to “dis­crim­i­nate against minori­ties and per­pet­u­ate racial, reli­gious and polit­i­cal profiling.”

While the coun­cil vot­ed on the pro­pos­al, row­dy pro­test­ers began chant­i­ng, “No! No! No! No!”

Coun­cil mem­bers have pro­posed expand­ing the DAC to add live, 24/7 data streams from closed cir­cuit traf­fic cam­eras, police license plate read­ers, gun­shot detec­tors and oth­er sources from all over the entire city of Oakland.

The dan­ger, say oppo­nents, is putting all these data resources into one place.

If you need to go to four dif­fer­ent loca­tions to track some­one’s move­ments across town, you’re not going to do it unless you have a good rea­son,” said Lin­da Lye of the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “But when you can do it with the press of a but­ton because it’s all at your fin­ger­tips, you’ll end up doing it based on your idle curios­i­ty.” That, Lye said, cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion ripe for abuse.

Oak­land rep­re­sents just one bat­tle­ground in a fiery debate about how cities should be using so-called “Big Data,” espe­cial­ly aggre­gat­ed video and oth­er types of surveillance.

City closed-cir­cuit TV cam­eras per­formed famous­ly when they helped iden­ti­fy sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ists in Lon­don in 2005 and in Boston last year.

Com­mu­ni­ty sur­veil­lance 2.0

But the issue has pro­gressed far beyond the pow­er of a few hun­dred video cam­eras and street­light posts. Com­mu­ni­ty sur­veil­lance 2.0 is now all about huge data mash-ups and incred­i­ble soft­ware that quick­ly sorts through moun­tains of infor­ma­tion. Bot­tom line: A rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of peo­ple have easy access to data that can track your whereabouts.

In many cities, cam­eras mount­ed on police patrol cars gath­er video of mil­lions of license plates. That data that can be used to track vehi­cles, pos­si­bly yours. Add traf­fic cam­eras to the mix. Then include cam­eras at bus stops, air­ports and train sta­tions. How about cam­eras owned by schools and pri­vate secu­ri­ty companies?

The key to using all this infor­ma­tion is the data-min­ing soft­ware that can eas­i­ly and effec­tive­ly rifle through it.

Cities lead­ing the way in video data col­lect­ing include Lon­don — an ear­ly and strong adopter of wide­spread cam­era sur­veil­lance. The UK report­ed­ly has 5.9 mil­lion CCTV cam­eras nation­wide. For every 11 British cit­i­zens, there’s one CCTV cam­era, accord­ing to Salon.

Nice, France, has been expand­ing its sur­veil­lance cen­ter, which is pro­ject­ed to even­tu­al­ly count one cam­era for every 500 residents.

As Rio de Janeiro hosts the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the city plans to make heavy use of its IBM-designed Oper­a­tions Cen­ter, which com­bines video and oth­er data from 30 agen­cies includ­ing traf­fic cam­eras, sub­ways and even weath­er satellites.

The net­work includes more than 550 cam­eras, 400 employ­ees and 60 dif­fer­ent lay­ers of data streamed from city­wide sen­sors. May­or Pedro Jun­queira says the cen­ter helps emer­gency teams warn res­i­dents in land­slide-prone areas when to evac­u­ate dur­ing heavy rainstorms.
Police found an image of Boston bomb­ing sus­pect Dzhokhar Tsar­naev on a con­ve­nience store sur­veil­lance camera.
The cen­ter also takes cred­it for a rapid response to an emer­gency after a truck top­pled a pedes­tri­an bridge, block­ing lanes on a major high­way. Traf­fic was back to nor­mal with­in nine hours.

Read more about Rio’s Oper­a­tions Center

In New York, a com­pa­ny called Placeme­ter is using feeds from hun­dreds of traf­fic video cam­eras to study 10 mil­lion pedes­tri­an move­ments each day. It’s using that data to help busi­ness­es learn how to mar­ket to pedes­tri­an con­sumers. Placeme­ter also says it wants to use the data to help con­sumers with infor­ma­tion such as when to vis­it your neigh­bor­hood cof­fee bar when the line is short­er. Placeme­ter says it does­n’t store the video, nor does their analy­sis involve facial recognition.

Watch how Placeme­ter uses mind­blow­ing tech­nol­o­gy to track pedestrians

Los Ange­les Police use a game-chang­ing data min­ing soft­ware pro­gram called Palan­tir that can claim the CIA as an ear­ly investor.

Watch how LA police use Big Data to fight crime

Lessons from Boston

Last year’s Boston bomb­ings inves­ti­ga­tion showed how fast police were able to sift through moun­tains of sur­veil­lance data. After Lon­don’s ter­ror­ist attacks in 2005, it took thou­sands of inves­ti­ga­tors weeks to painstak­ing­ly ana­lyze all the CCTV footage. Eight years lat­er in Boston, the FBI was able to release blur­ry images of two sus­pects in just three days.

Read more about the pros and cons of secu­ri­ty cameras

But the facial recog­ni­tion data tools used in the Boston probe was­n’t per­fect. Images of the two sus­pects were avail­able in pub­lic data bases, but the com­put­ers that searched that data missed them, CNN’s Tom Fore­man report­ed last year. Secu­ri­ty ana­lysts wide­ly admit facial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­o­gy is not yet good enough to spot a sus­pect in a crowd.

Read more about facial recog­ni­tion tech

Stud­ies try­ing to deter­mine the crime-fight­ing effec­tive­ness of cam­eras have been incon­clu­sive. Accord­ing to the Sur­veil­lance Stud­ies Cen­tre at Queen’s Uni­ver­si­ty in Ontario, urban sur­veil­lance sys­tems have not been proved to have any effect on deter­ring crim­i­nals. But a study from the U.S. Jus­tice Depart­ment says it depends on the cir­cum­stances. Some­times cam­eras can be a “poten­tial­ly use­ful tool for pre­vent­ing crimes” the study says, “when active­ly monitored.”

Mean­while, U.S. com­mu­ni­ties are tak­ing steps to make their sur­veil­lance more robust.

– Chica­go: When the tran­sit author­i­ty put more cam­eras in rail sta­tions, crime went down, accord­ing to CNN affil­i­ate WGN.

– Day­ton, Ohio: Police plan a new crime fight­ing strat­e­gy that includes 27 video cam­eras placed down­town, accord­ing to the Day­ton Dai­ly News.

– Sacra­men­to, Cal­i­for­nia: The sher­iff has asked home­own­ers and busi­ness­es to reg­is­ter their secu­ri­ty cam­eras on the depart­men­t’s web­site. Inves­ti­ga­tors would con­tact cam­era own­ers locat­ed near crime scenes to search their video for poten­tial evi­dence, accord­ing to CNN affil­i­ate KCRA.

Even in tiny Chad­bourn, North Car­oli­na — pop­u­la­tion about 2,000– CNN affil­i­ate WECT reports they’re talk­ing about putting a cam­era down at the local Pig­gly Wig­gly gro­cery store.

Cities look­ing for guide­lines aimed at safe­guard­ing sur­veil­lance cen­ters from pri­va­cy abus­es might look to The Euro­pean Forum for Urban Secu­ri­ty, which sug­gests putting sys­tems into place that include mech­a­nisms for trans­paren­cy, inde­pen­dent over­sight and account­abil­i­ty.

Pri­va­cy safe­guards are being put in place in Men­lo Park, Cal­i­for­nia, where lead­ers recent­ly passed a law F1ALPR_201405082118414514 requir­ing all data cap­tured by auto­mat­ed license plate read­ers to be destroyed after six months unless it’s part of an inves­ti­ga­tion.

The whole issue is “very explo­sive” and the Oak­land City Coun­cil rec­og­nizes this, said the ACLU’s Lye. At the March meet­ing, after so many res­i­dents expressed their con­cerns, the coun­cil vot­ed to cur­tail the scope of the DAC, lim­it­ing sur­veil­lance to just the port and the air­port. The vote was 5–4.

There will be efforts in the future to expand the DAC to include city-based sur­veil­lance sys­tems,” Lye warned.

Oak­land May­or Jean Quan has promised to look into what pri­va­cy safe­guards might be need­ed before try­ing again to expand the scope of the sur­veil­lance center.

Quan, who favors the DAC, told the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle: “This is obvi­ous­ly an issue that is split­ting the coun­try.”