Our presenters are members of the Berkeley North East Bay chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  Mimi Bull, JD is an El Cerrito resident and Senior Legal Analyst, and Dr. Bharat Trehan is an economist who used to work at the Federal Reserve Bank.  

Ms. Bull provided us with a detailed handout describing nine new technologies that are in use in different parts of California and the country.  

The technologies are

  • Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs)
  • Body Cameras
  • Drones
  • Video Surveillance
  • Facial Recognition
  • Location Tracking
  • Automated Social Media Monitoring
  • International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) Catchers, and
  • Data Mining.

(This handout, which includes  brief descriptions of each technology, is available on page 4 at the ACLU website as a pdf:

Once we had learned what kinds of tools are available, Dr. Trehan asked, “As more new technology comes into use, who makes the decision of what to buy and what to use?”

He pointed out that currently, law enforcement usually makes the decisions.  Police departments and Sheriffs, those concerned with public safety, decide what to buy, where and when to deploy these tools, and how to store and retain data collected.  This equipment can make law enforcement more efficient – which is fine and good when it comes to protecting us from gun violence, hate crimes, and burglary.

But the public safety not the only aspect of law enforcement; surveillance equipment means we lose privacy, and the loss of privacy can have a chilling effect on political activity, especially when it challenges the status quo.

Surveillance can learn not just political activities, but also medical information, romantic attachments, financial information.  This information probably won’t expose illegal acts, but when in the hand of inexperienced or incompetent data managers, could expose medical conditions that could affect hiring decisions, romantic information that could alter the timing of ending a relationship, and financial information that could have a negative effect on getting financial assistance.

In addition, the costs of these technologies are not just the price of the devices themselves; training and maintenance have costs as well.  The most difficult and perhaps the most expensive cost is the staff time to research the purchase and the staff time for training.  Learning to use these complex new technologies can take a lot of time.

The decisions to deploy these technologies should take these factors into account!

In Philadelphia there was  a purchase budgeted at $651,672 for a video surveillance program using 216 cameras.  But it ended up costing $13.9 MILLION by the time all the associated costs were included, for only 102 cameras.  And that $13.9 million could have put 200 new police onto the streets.

There are other kinds of problems too.  In 2014, the City of San Jose police and fire buried a drone in a $900,000 appropriations request.  It wasn’t discovered until several months after the fact. A huge public outcry then resulted, leading to a public apology and impaired relations between the community and public safety.  

This delayed the purchase, training and implementation, and the permits required to train the drone operators.  The drone MIGHT be used by end of 2016 or early 2017 – 3-year old machine using outdated technology in a field where technology moves very fast, ironically in Silicon Valley.

At the Port of Oakland, there is a Domain Awareness Center which captures data from the port.  There was an attempt to expand this to city-wide coverage, using ALPRs, closed circuit television (CCTV), etc., but public backlash forced the city to put a commission in place to advise on how to collect, use and store the data.

The cost to maintain surveillance in Richmond is $300,000 per year.

And the costs of buying, staffing, and maintaining the technology doesn’t include the potential costs for not protecting data.  The average data security breach costs private companies more than $3.5 million to resolve.   The City of New York paid more than $2 million to settle a lawsuit on improper surveillance of Muslim communities.

Overall, the decision to use the technology is complicated, and carries many risks.  To address this, the ACLU proposes the following:

  • Public should know about that the purchase and use of this equipment is being contemplated at the earliest stage
  • The decision should be made with the public, elected officials and police
  • There should be a cost:benefit analysis
  • The oversight process should not end once the decision to acquire has been made!

There is an ongoing need to insure accountability including annual reporting, review, or counting mechanisms.  We can make smart decisions about surveillance that protects the public from real crime.

Overall, the reaction to these proposals has been positive; the International Society of Chiefs of Police have made recommendations are very like the ACLU recommendations.   Police chiefs realize they do need this.

In a statewide survey of likely voters in California, there was overall agreement with the ACLU recommendations. Significant majorities want local officials to vote on the adoption of new surveillance technologies and also want local and statewide policies to limit surveillance technology that  police can use.

And finally, media reaction has been quite positive.  The San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Times, and the San Jose Mercury News have all printed editorials supporting these measures.  Santa Clara County may be the first county to pass an ordinance.

One of our visitors, also an active ACLU member, pointed out that there is no right to privacy in a public place, and that the data on the effectiveness of surveillance on preventing crime is contradictory.  However, we should also be aware that there is a lot of money to make from selling this technology.  This technology is designed to grow in cost and become obsolete, and to guarantee a future revenue stream to the manufacturer.

One of our members brought up the shootings on freeways, and asked how do you find out who is doing the shooting without cameras?  How would you stop that kind of crime?

We also considered the deterrent effect of body cameras on police brutality.  And that cameras can be valuable and can nail a suspect.  But we still have to ask, what are you giving up to nail one suspect – do you give up 40 officers?  How much more effective would the 40 officers have been at insuring public safety?

A new member, an El Cerrito Business owner, told us that El Cerrito already has existing surveillance since all restaurants are required to have surveillance cameras and there is a reimbursement policy to defray the costs.  Our mayor, and ECDC treasurer, Greg Lyman clarified that there is a city ordinance and that police have access to the data only to solve a crime.  The data isn’t collected until after a crime has occurred on the premises.