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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Oakland's Resistance to Mass Surveillance: Would it Play Out the Same Way Today?

The BBC has this interesting article on an attempt by the City of Oakland, California to adopt a wide-ranging surveillance system, and the resistance to the city's efforts. From the article:
Most cities, including Oakland, have cameras monitoring traffic intersections and public areas. But a Domain Awareness Centre, or DAC, is far more sophisticated. It is still based around a bank of screens, but the camera feeds are augmented by data from weather reports, shipping movements, social media chatter, email records, emergency calls and other data sources. 
The port of Oakland had been given federal funds in 2008 to build a DAC as part of a post-9/11 push to protect critical infrastructure from terrorist attack. 
At some point, the city council decided to extend the system to cover the whole of Oakland and its population of 400,000 people. 
. . .

Hundreds of new cameras would be installed across the city and data would be incorporated from from licence plate readers, gunshot-detection microphones, social media, and, in later phases, facial recognition software and programmes that can recognise people from the way they walk. 
The city said it needed an early warning system to give "first responders" a head start when dealing with emergencies like chemical spills and earthquakes, as well as major crime and terrorist incidents. 
But privacy campaigners in the city were alarmed at the thought of the Oakland Police Department having access to an all-pervasive real-time surveillance network. Particularly one that did not have a policy on what data would be stored and for how long. 
The article goes on to report that the Oakland City Counsel hosted a "marathon" meeting on March 4, 2014 to debate the scope of the DAC. At the meeting, privacy advocates, former "Occupy" protesters, and members of Oakland's African American and Muslim communities spoke out against the DAC, and the proposed surveillance program was ultimately scaled back "dramatically."

I blogged about the federal grant Oakland received back in 2013. In that post, I shared the concern of many of the privacy advocates cited by the article that the widespread surveillance system would be implemented or employed in a manner that would lead to disproportionate surveillance of racial minorities and less-wealthy citizens.

Oakland's attempt at surveillance, and the resistance the attempt inspired, is an interesting case study for the implementation of widespread, automated security measures in urban settings. The BBC suggests that the timing of the Snowden leaks gave momentum to the protest against the proposed surveillance -- as both the content of the Snowden revelations and Oakland's proposals involved the issue of technologically enabled mass surveillance.

I am curious as to whether the same level of resistance would arise in today's political climate, in which most attention seems focused on instances of excessive force employed by police officers and fear of excessive force in personal encounters with officers. These issues seem far-removed from questions of systematic surveillance practices their broader impact on privacy. Indeed, as I discuss at length in this post, today's discussions of policing practices often include calls for body cameras despite warnings from groups like the ACLU that these cameras may lead to systematic privacy violations.

Moreover, those concerned with police excessive force may be tempted to advocate for wider, automated surveillance systems. These systems may appear to enforce the law in a manner that avoids officer discretion, which may arguably reduce the incidence, or opportunities for instances, of excessive force. But as commentators like Elizabeth Joh point out, officers can still exercise discretion with widespread, automatic surveillance systems by focusing those systems on particular people or groups of people.

More cities will likely attempt to adopt wider, more technologically sophisticated surveillance systems as time goes on and as the technology becomes more accessible. I suspect that resistance to these proposals will be less pronounced than in 2014 as notions of mass surveillance become more normalized and as long as protests against law enforcement remain focused on the actions of individual officers rather than on the policies and procedures adopted by departments and municipalities as a whole.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Trump's Bold Plan for the Fourth Amendment

Politico reports on an exciting development in Donald Trump's policy proposals. When asked how he would address "violence in the black community," Trump was ready with this nuanced discussion of police procedures:

“I would do stop-and-frisk. I think you have to. We did it in New York, it worked incredibly well and you have to be proactive and, you know, you really help people sort of change their mind automatically,” Trump told the questioner. “You understand, you have to have, in my opinion, I see what’s going on here, I see what’s going on in Chicago, I think stop-and-frisk. In New York City it was so incredible, the way it worked. Now, we had a very good mayor, but New York City was incredible, the way that worked, so I think that could be one step you could do.”
The Politico headline says that Trump called for "national stop-and-frisk," so that's what I'll assume he said there.

I'm intrigued to see how Trump will manage to dictate local police policy from the national level, and how Trump will manage to overcome some procedural obstacles presented by a particular arcane 18th century legal doctrine. But if this is the same Trump that is going to "open up" libel laws, I doubt that pesky technicalities like the Constitution will be much of an obstacle.

Also, "you really help people sort of change their mind automatically?" Yeesh.