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Operation Secure San Diego had all the makings of a surveillance program that deserved more public scrutiny – even if it did eventually turn out to be a dud.
The San Diego Police Department in 2010 launched a program that would have given it access to private security cameras all over the city. It said the program would deter crime, collect evidence and give officers a live feed of crime scenes as events were unfolding.
In reality, half of the cameras they got access to weren’t compatible with their internal system, and officers’ cars don’t have fast enough modems to make the feeds useful in the first place.
As a result, the program never took off, and the department isn’t actively expanding it right now.
But the department still has blanket access to all those surveillance cameras, and says it’s doing ongoing work on the IT side to solve the program’s compatibility issues. And officer cars are getting upgraded computers over the next three years that would speed up the live stream.
And yet, the bulk of the public conversation about the program has been limited to recruiting people with private cameras to join in – not outlining how the department can safeguard people’s privacy.
Compare that with the SDPD’s recent push to outfit all of its nearly 1,000 patrol officers with body cameras, meant to both protect officers from false misconduct claims and to document actual impropriety when it occurs.
That $3.9 million decision came after multiple public hearings and negotiations between the department and the police union outlining policies associated with the equipment (those policies didn’t please everyone, either).
With Operation Secure San Diego, the department has said basic details of the program, such as internal analysis on its performance and cost estimates for personnel time spent on it, are not public records.
“I have enormous concern from a privacy and civil liberties perspective,” said David Loy, legal director from American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “I don’t dispute there are appropriate uses for technology in law enforcement. As with all technology, there need to be clear, transparent and accountable safeguards for what is being used and how it’s being used. I’m not asking for every operational detail, but I think the public has a right to know what tech is being used and what policies and safeguards there are to ensure we aren’t converting San Diego, and the country, into a Big Brother surveillance state.”
SDPD rejected a request for basic results of the program. A follow-up interview with SDPD spokesman Mark Herring suggested the department couldn’t provide that information even if it wanted to.
The SDPD does not have a specific statistical tracking and feedback for Operation Secure San Diego as it relates to its success in a particular incident. The cameras may have been of great use to officers and investigators during a particular incident, however, without the ability to specifically track this, I cannot give you details of an incident.
But Loy rejects framing the program as a question of trading civil liberties for some form of increased safety, if in fact the SDPD can demonstrate a safety increase.
“We need to back up, and ask a threshold question: Why is it necessary to have this at all?” he said. “Is there a particular reason to believe it will result in a measurable safety increase, or is it dragnet surveillance because, hey, it might potentially be somehow useful someday?”
This isn’t the only high-minded surveillance application of new technology in San Diego. In fact, it seems the county’s becoming a bit of a hotbed for surveillance tech.
County law enforcement agencies have license-plate readers that had registered 36 million records of residents’ comings and goings since 2010 in a database maintained by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), as CityBeat reported last year.
And 25 local law enforcement agencies are using facial recognition software, paid for by SANDAG with a $475,000 grant from Homeland Security.
SANDAG also has 16 machines that record the signals cell phones send when they’re trying to connect to WiFi or Bluetooth signals, called Bluefax systems. Mostly they’re used for anonymous data tracking for things like traffic, but could include certain personal information.
Altogether, they’re creating a San Diego with quite a network of public surveillance systems of which many residents aren’t aware.
“San Diego has all these things, and you just don’t see a lot of questions raised about civil rights issues,” said Dave Maass, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that promotes civil liberties in the face of new technologies. “People are dazzled by cool and novel technology. These agencies should have someone who is an advocate for privacy, and who makes sure adequate privacy policies are written around this technology.”
He mentioned the concern for mission creep with new technology: An agency proposes a new system to address a specific area, but later realizes it could be used in another way.
For Operation Secure San Diego, that possibility is baked into its only public document. While officers have touted the program as a way to stream live feeds of areas where crimes are happening to inform their responses, the entry form for businesses handing over their feeds says the SDPD will use it to deter crime; view, record and document activity for evidentiary purposes; provide real time tactical information for responding officers and to identify questionable individuals or conduct.
That last one struck a nerve for Loy.
“That’s enormously troubling,” he said. “One person’s suspicious individual is another person’s anti-government protester or skateborder, or someone who is innocent of a crime but isn’t a Chamber of Commerce spokesperson.”
The alternative to the robust surveillance program SDPD envisions is much simpler, and is one the department and others all over the country already use regularly.
When a crime occurs and there’s a security camera that might have information helpful to the investigation, they make a narrow, targeted request for the footage during the relevant time.
“That’s a legitimate law enforcement investigation: You ask for footage pertaining to the time and place in question, as opposed to a permanent and unlimited dragnet,” Loy said. “The former sounds like an investigation, the latter sounds like Big Brother.”
“It should be that they demonstrate suspicion before a request, and the request should be limited only to the circumstances of a suspected crime,” Maass said.