US cities increasingly ignoring privacy, gobbling up data on residents

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Attention. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.Federal money earmarked to thwart terrorist attacks in the US is instead getting funneled into increasingly pervasive surveillance of citizens, the New York Times reports.

Police departments are rolling out technologies including gunshot-detection sensors, license plate readers, data-mining of social media posts for criminal activity, tracking of toll payments when drivers use electronic passes, and even at least one police purchase of a drone in Texas,

The paper outlined one such expansive initiative being undertaken in the California city of Oakland, where a federal grant of $7 million, originally meant largely to protect its busy seaport, is instead being devoted to a police initiative that will collect and analyze "reams" of surveillance data, from gunshot detection sensors in its barrios to the license plate readers mounted on the city's patrol cars.

Alameda County, where Oakland is located, also tried to copy Texas by using homeland security funds to buy a drone, but the plan was shelved after public protest.

Oakland is, in fact, setting up what the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California called a program of "warrantless surveillance" that would enable the city to "collect and stockpile comprehensive information about Oakland residents who have engaged in no wrongdoing whatsoever."

Oakland's City Council on 30 July rejected concerns of privacy advocates and citizens (who pointed out that the initiative was being pushed through without privacy or data-retention guidelines) and voted in favor of a $11 million surveillance center, the so-called Domain Awareness Center (DAC), that will consolidate a vast network of surveillance data from over 1,000 cameras and sensors pointed at Oakland residents.

And when it comes to surveillance, Oakland is only one of many US cities that are following in the National Security Agency's (NSA's) footsteps.

Some examples from the NYT:

  • The New York Police Department, aided by federal financing, has a big data system that links 3,000 surveillance cameras with license plate readers, radiation sensors, criminal databases and terror suspect lists.
  • Police in Massachusetts have used federal money to buy automated license plate scanners.

Oakland's DAC kicks all that surveillance up quite a few notches.

It will work around the clock to gather data from sensors and databases in a central location, analyze the data and display information on a bank of giant monitors. In the summer of 2014, it will be integrated with a database that allows police to tap into calls to emergency services, as well.

In the future, school surveillance cameras, as well as video from the regional commuter rail system and state highways, may also be added.

Citizens aren't necessarily taking this lying down.

Iowa City, in the state of Iowa, is one example. Politicians in June very reluctantly passed a ban on drones, traffic cameras and license plate readers after being compelled to do so after 4,000 citizens signed a petition.

The Seattle City Council for its part, forced its police department to return a federally financed drone to the manufacturer, the NYT reports.

In fact, the city council - which is supposed to oversee the city's police department - was startled to find that Seattle was on a list of agencies that would get streamlined approval for police use of drones, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) reported.

Will these ever-broadening uses of surveillance enhance safety? That's what law enforcement would have us believe.

Whether that expectation reflects reality is another matter entirely.

A case in point: studies such as this one that point to red light cameras leading to more accidents, perhaps because of drivers who stop abruptly, in fear of getting tagged when going through a yellow light, and thereby cause rear-end collisions.

Do you think the privacy tradeoff is worth the questionable benefit of enhanced safety? Let us know in your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image of surveillance courtesy of Shutterstock.

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17 Responses to US cities increasingly ignoring privacy, gobbling up data on residents

  1. D-F · 280 days ago

    In parts of Britain Close Circuit TV surveillance of the streets has been combined with facial recognition and even movement analysis (terrorists apparently shuffle around the streets differently to the rest of us).

    With the exception of gun-shot recognition (a thankfully small problem in GB due to us not being constitutionally allowed to be killed by unlicensed "shooters") the above story seems to indicate that for once the US is following us. The British police have been reading our number plates for decades - originally meant to enable them to track IRA suspects for instance crossing the Scottish - English border. I suspect that any self respecting suspect just used fake plates or crossed the border on back roads - the position of the main camera gantry was fairly well known.

    We even had a publicly available congestion monitoring system ("Traffic Master") that read number plates - "remembering" only the two characters either side of the central gap in a GB format plate and then attempted to detect the same plate a few miles further down the road and use the information to calculate average speed.

    Now we have smart phones spewing out information, I suspect most of us have no privacy when it comes to "where we are".

  2. Tony · 280 days ago

    Bridgwater in Somerset, UK, also has PNR (number plate recognition cameras) on the main roads entering the town.

    It is sad how we have become a police state. The UK refuses to have ID cards, and sign up to Schengen so that we can have free movement and yet has a spying operation that probably has no equal in the world. Since they already have so much on us, we might as well have ID cards because in the UK today, privacy is purely an illusion.

  3. Magyver · 280 days ago

    Re: "Do you think the privacy tradeoff is worth the questionable benefit of enhanced safety?"

    There's no tradeoff, and no enhanced safety. There's only mis-appropriation of federal funds......

  4. Spryte · 280 days ago

    Same here in Canada... police/security monitoring is growing at an alarming rate.

  5. Judith · 280 days ago

    California, New York, and Massachusetts are three of the most "liberal" states in the U.S. The word "liberal" used to pertain to freedom, but now it pretty much means the exact opposite. What "enhanced safety" does such intrusive surveillance provide? Those who trade freedom for safety end up with neither.

    The story is an old one: "We must implement these temporary measures for the security of the empire..." But they're never temporary. Name the last ten laws that were repealed. You can't, because it doesn't happen. Yet, they keep passing more of them. More of the problem is not the solution.

    We don't have government. We have an out-of-control miasma of toxic, command-and-control mentality that's heading us toward a Fourth Reich. Anyone who thinks it can be solved with more legislation needs a reality check.

  6. Andy · 280 days ago

    What is the point of having privacy laws when no one seems to obey them. the amount of paranoia has gone long past the line of respectability. when are our governments going to realise people will not put up with this for much longer and will hold politicians to account by not voting for them and removing them from government.. lets have some common sense government not all this spying is due to terrorism your just too dam nosy.

  7. Ralph Fendlemyer · 280 days ago

    We'll at least it puts to rest the lies that the East German Stasi were the worst when it came to the surveillance and monitoring of its citizens and that this 24/7 total surveillance state is designed to 'keep us safe'. All secrecy,no privacy and no accountability. That's what it's really about.

  8. Mark · 280 days ago

    @Andy - not going to happen. Most people welcome the loss of privacy in the belief it enhances their security and agreeing with the twin arguments: "if you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide" and "if will be worth it if it catches just one terrorist/childpornographer."

    it is all being done in the name of the twin boogymen - terrorism and child pornographers, and once those arguments are brought up, nobody can object if they have any hope of ever holding a public office. So don't expect any course change in the future.

    • OutsideTheMarginals · 279 days ago

      Saying it "will be worth it if it catches just one terrorist/child pornographer." is like a politician saying “We should do everything possible to avoid …”. Everything? It's lazy and ultimately stupid. Think through a few examples

      “We should do everything possible to ensure that we have a competitive economy”. Everything? Child Labour – or even slave labour will make us more competitive.

      “We should do everything possible to prevent children being harmed by paedophiles”. Everything possible? Well for a start you can castrate every male at puberty.

      “We should do everything possible to prevent terrorism”. Everything possible? Well an internal security service that would put East Germany and the old Soviet Union to shame would be a start.

      As you imply the electorate are too lazy and stupid to think through their demands and they get the politicians that they deserve. The chances of a UK resident being killed in a UK terrorist outrage is less than 0.0001% per year, yet the electorate want total security. Not event total surveillance will give total security. Yet we (UK residents) tolerate road traffic accidents and diseases like cancer (with much higher chances of death); we even tolerate diversion of funds from preventing likely causes of death to ineffective attempts to prevent unlikely causes of death. (And I do not buy the excuse that without the surveillance we would have terrorism death rates that outstrip road traffic death rates).

      Want to "do everything possible" to prevent computer viruses? Well ban the internet and ban any way of loading a program on to a computer. That will solve that problem.

    • Andy · 279 days ago

      It is just paranoia Mark for on a conservative guess 99% of the population would not even dream about being a terrorist even though I do accept your point on Child pornographers, however once the individual is checked out then the individuals freedoms of privacy must be restored, but these so called agencies continue to spy . Why. If some one is not found to be involved with anything like this their privacy should be returned to them, it is a human right.

  9. Randy · 280 days ago

    Security is a two edged sword. I don't want to be monitored by my government, especially with cruiser mounted license plate readers tracking me around the city. On the other hand, if my car gets stolen, I want it back ASAP and the thief in custody. I can't have it both ways.
    The government is now collecting contact lists from smart phones and that is indefensible. I guess we have to pick our battles carefully and decide which security measures are prudent and which are overstepping the bounds of good government.

  10. Canuck · 280 days ago

    And yet in North America you are much more likely to die from falling down (stairs,bathtub/shower,slippery floor etc) than being killed by a terrorist - but you cannot get that simple fact through to someone who supports this increasing security and surveillance state being created.

    It started as paranoia; now the security state is entrenched and being misused at every turn.

  11. Zac · 280 days ago

    In Australia almost all of the highway patrol cop cars have number plate readers on them and have had so for years now. I have no problem with the number plate readers as they scan the number plate and check if there are any problems with the cars rego or criminal offences to do with the car and driver. What I do have a problem with is unnecessary phone tracking.

  12. Larry Marks · 279 days ago

    Benjamin Franklin, one of America's founding fathers said "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

  13. RAPPro · 279 days ago

    Before all the PRO & CON arguments I suggest that we focus on this:
    When and where do you have "a reasonable expectation of privacy".
    For example:
    A license plate is designed and intended to be a PUBLIC display of an automobile's official registration. Its intent is to allow law enforcement to verify that the vehicle may be legally operated on PUBLIC property (ie. streets & roads)

    Your cell phone usage is NOT intended to be a public record. Assuming that you pay for your email service, it is reasonable to expect that your email communication is as private as your USPS correspondence.

    Lets explore the boundaries of your "reasonable expectations" and then we can address how to get government to observe those boundaries.

  14. cybersleuth · 279 days ago

    As RAPPro said, LPR's capture your plate in PUBLIC which is not constitutionally protected. The reality is the Assisting Criminals Litigation Unit (ACLU) is deft at convincing Americans this is somehow illegal. A license plate and vehicle description alone does not contain personally identifying information until the DMV database is queried. In our state it is a felony to access DMV without a valid reason and we only do so to solve actual crimes and can back it up with a case investigation. In the US, thousands of crimes have been solved from LPR's including murder, kidnapping, robbery, etc.

    The NSA aside, we don't really have time to scour the LPR info just for fun as other investigations await. That said, I want to be able to keep the historical data so when the connection is made to a serial rapist who just happened to have his plate read near all 7 crime scenes I can give closure to those victims.

  15. Jason · 277 days ago

    It's to much control being handed over to the govern. At what point does it stop? Infra red cameras posted in front of our house? They say it is for safety but like all other military equipment, it will be abused!

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.