Tag Archives: Cameras

Bullying on the Buses: Boston School Department Says More Surveillance Is The Solution

Bullying-pic

The Boston Globe reports that the Boston School Department, worried about bullying on yellow buses, is buying audio-enabled camera systems to install on them. MBTA buses have already added camera systems that are not enabled for audio. As ever, the justification is “safety”: driver safety, student safety, whatever kind of safety. Mention the word “safety”, and it shuts down reasonable questions like: Well, how much safety and at what cost?

I was bullied as a kid – bullied on buses, in stairwells, in restrooms, in parks. I’d be the last person on earth to trivialize bullying or pretend that it isn’t awful. I appreciate that the Boston schools are taking bullying seriously and want to encourage students to treat one another with decency. But cameras on buses don’t internalize decency in kids; they internalize compliance when being watched. I was never bullied when authority figures were watching; that doesn’t mean that the solution would have been, in pre-digital days, to station a concerned adult everywhere a kid might get bullied. Nor are cameras and microphones the solution here.

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High Over Compton: “Wide Area Surveillance” Surveils Entire Town

The Atlantic picks up on a story from the Center for Investigative Reporting that in 2012, the LA County Sheriff’s Department secretly tested a civilian surveillance aircraft by flying it over a town in their jurisdiction and taking high-resolution footage of everything visibly happening there, over a period of up to six hours (highlights are ours):

If it’s adopted, Americans can be policed like Iraqis and Afghanis under occupation – and at bargain prices:

McNutt, who holds a doctorate in rapid product development, helped build wide-area surveillance to hunt down bombing suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan. He decided that clusters of high-powered surveillance cameras attached to the belly of small civilian aircraft could be a game-changer in U.S. law enforcement.

“Our whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter,” McNutt said. “But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch.”

A sergeant in the L.A. County Sheriff’s office compared the technology to Big Brother, which didn’t stop him from deploying it over a string of necklace snatchings.

The town they chose? Compton. Yes, that Compton, but it’s not the same Compton as yesteryear. Its boosters are now touting it as the hip, countercultural Brooklyn of the LA area. It has an inspirational new Millennial mayor, Aja Brown, who has garnered comparisons to Cory Booker. Its crime rate is down sixty percent, and it’s now majority-Latino. But it still has a median household income of $42,335, and still, even after all its struggles, somehow found itself the first city selected for mass surveillance, over, say, majority-white, tony Santa Clarita (median household income $91,450). Well, blow me down with a post-racial colorblind goddamn feather.

In related news, the NSA, under its MYSTIC and RETRO programs, was revealed last month to have been collecting the contents of the phone communications of an entire country (unnamed, but probably Iraq).

Believe it or not, this is the program's actual logo.

Believe it or not, this is the program’s actual logo.

These two stories are essentially the same. Developments in technology allow law enforcement surveillance to sweep past legal constraints intended for an era where collecting, storing and analyzing so much data was inconceivable. In luckless Compton, the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Florida v. Riley renders “wide area surveillance” presumptively constitutional. In luckless Iraq, the expansive powers of Executive Order 12333 and the FISA Amendments Act impose effectively no constraints on the NSA in intercepting the communications of foreign nations.

May I draw your attention to three salient points?

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Turns out, MBTA has plenty of dollars – for surveillance.

Kade Crockford reports that DHS has awarded the MBTA $7 million to refit its buses with fancy new surveillance cameras. Why? Oh, no reason in particular. But the MBTA is at pains to point out that they spent none of their own money on the project. What’s wrong with free money?

Let me tell you what’s wrong with free money. Whether it’s coming from MBTA, DHS, the NSA or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it all comes from you and me in the end, and I care just the same about whether it’s being spent wisely.

I understand the politics. MBTA, being a local agency, tends to come under fire if it, say, has a massive budget crisis and hikes fares by 23% to help make up the shortfall. DHS, on the other hand, won’t be protested, and this one grant is a drop in the bucket. Nobody’s going to lose their job at DHS if the money does no good.

Crockford rightly comments:

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Democratic process challenges use of DHS surveillance cameras

This is a guest post by Adam Weiss of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

camera-500x333From 2008 to 2010, Boston and eight surrounding cities and towns installed surveillance cameras provided by a grant through the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Urban Areas Security Initiative. DHS’ website describes the cameras as part of a system that has “nine, independent and interoperable nodes tied together through a central hub and is made up of over 100 cameras.” The cameras were justified for the protection of “critical infrastructure” from terrorist attack, but their use has faced scrutiny from citizens concerned about threats to civil liberties. In Brookline and Cambridge, two municipalities covered by the grant, residents are using local governments to attempt to ban surveillance cameras.

Four members of Brookline’s Town Meeting, the two hundred and forty-five member legislature of the town government, are co-sponsoring a resolution calling on Brookline’s Board of Selectmen to remove all DHS-provided cameras. The resolution is expected to be voted on by Thursday, November 21. While the Town Meeting cannot set binding policy on the use of surveillance cameras, which is left to the Board of Selectmen, its role as the voice for public opinion can have major impact. In 2009, the Town Meeting passed a similar resolution, which led to a compromise with the Brookline Police Department that the cameras would only operate from 10 pm to 6 am. However, the Brookline police are seeking to implement a policy of 24-hour surveillance following the Boston Marathon bombing, which now has prompted four Town Meeting members to co-sponsor another resolution.

The proposed resolution states that mass surveillance is not appropriate for a free society, and further declares:

“Permanent surveillance cameras are another step in the wrong direction toward radically changing our sense of being a free society…While public places may not, in a technical legal sense, be places where we have an ‘expectation of privacy,’ the right to be let alone and not identified or tracked by the police is a fundamental aspect of a free society.”

One of those co-sponsors, Clint Richmond, expressed concern about the chilling effect surveillance cameras can have on the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly, specifically citing that one camera is located at a popular site in Brookline for political activity. Richmond stated his belief that when people know they are under surveillance, their “behavior becomes inhibitive, impairing the right to free speech.”

Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM), has worked with Brookline PAX, a progressive organization of Brookline residents, providing community organizing support against the DHS cameras. Crockford conveyed her belief that the mass use of surveillance cameras foregoes more effective alternatives to reducing crime, since they do not deter crime and when perpetrators are caught after the fact, the vast majority of cases are for minor crimes, such as petty theft. She said it is thus “misleading” to claim that cameras can be effective at stopping terrorism. Another fear Crockford discussed was the “centralization of surveillance” provided by the cameras, since they are part of a larger network throughout Greater Boston, meaning they could potentially allow a person to be followed over a large geographical area.

Residents of Cambridge have thus far achieved the most success in limiting camera use of the nine Greater Boston municipalities that have them. As with Brookline, the Cambridge Police Department (CPD) also supports turning the cameras on twenty-four hours a day. However, in response to pressure from the Cambridge City Council, they have not been turned on at any point, despite being installed in 2009. The CPD recently published a draft policy for the use of the cameras, which was discussed at a public hearing on September 26, 2013. The ACLUM provided a statement at this meeting, which addressed the larger context of surveillance camera use, stating

“After 9/11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security catalyzed a transfer of funds, technologies, strategies, and tactics from the military and intelligence worlds down to the state and local levels. These transfers are part of a larger, dangerous trend of powerful and largely unaccountable federal agencies conscripting local police to act as eyes and ears for the national surveillance state.”

The City Council is waiting for the CPD to release its final draft of a policy before voting again on the issue, which is likely to happen in early 2015. Melissa Gonzalez, a member of Cambridge’s Human Rights Commission, the town government agency responsible for investigating unlawful discrimination, said there was great concern that cameras were placed in neighborhoods that could be profiling people of specific ethnicities and religion. She also expressed concern that there was insufficient accountability for camera use if activated, because the CPD cites only its own internal review procedures to ensure appropriate usage.

The fate of the cameras in both municipalities remains uncertain, as the impact of the Boston Marathon bombing has affected many people’s attitudes towards surveillance cameras. Richmond says he expects the vote in Brookline this week to be very close. In Cambridge, it is unclear how the City Council will react to a final CPD policy on camera use. Nonetheless, both municipalities exemplify how the democratic process can be used to limit the growing surveillance state.

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