Archive for aclu Tag

Oct 8Government Surveillance 2007

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This is kind of in the school category because it’s cross-posted from my AP Government class’s forums. Enjoy:


I think the American Civil Liberties Union came up when we did our chapter on civil liberties. What the ACLU does is “preserve all [the protections and guarantees of our] First Amendment rights … [our] right to equal protection under the law … [our] right to due process … [and our] right to privacy.” These are all things mentioned in class, I believe—in fact, they’re sort of what our civil liberties chapter was about (these things being civil liberties).

Yesterday, the local chapter of the ACLU of Northern California held an event at the Doubletree Hotel in the Berkeley Marina. There were two speakers; one was the mayor of Richmond, the other was Nicole A. Ozer, a lawyer with the ACLU Foundation. The main topic was government surveillance, and how it’s not the greatest thing ever.

I went to this event with my older brother, who is a member of the ACLU and who used to work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (also mentioned in class). I was kind of surprised by the attendance demographics when I got there—because my main exposure to civil liberties issues had been through my brother (24 years old) I was not exactly prepared for the room predominantly occupied by people in their seventies and eighties. My brother and I were thanked by multiple people for lowering the average age in the room…

The mayor of Richmond spoke first, and frankly, I don’t remember a whole lot of what she was trying to say. Some of what she said was plain fact, like the bit about the ~130 new surveillance cameras being put up around Richmond (costing about $4.2 million if I recall correctly). But most of what she said sort of glanced off me; I think I zoned out at one point while she was complaining about how the surveillance cameras are a bad idea, and how that $4.2 million could have gone to give 100 youth jobs doing community-building, and how that would be better, etc. Not that I disagree with her, but most of the time it just seemed like she was whining. Not the most stirring lecture.

Ozer was much more effective. She even had a power point presentation (though by even, I don’t mean even, because it didn’t contribute anything to her effectiveness). Anyway, she spoke a lot longer than the mayor. And I feel like she may have had a better grasp on the event’s topic (her being a lawyer specializing in this stuff). I may have learned a few things:

1. Government surveillance is becoming more and more widespread in its use at a fairly disturbing rate.

  • San Francisco went from 2 to 70 security cameras in 2 years (big change).
  • According to a public records survey done by the ACLU in 131 jurisdictions throughout California,
    • 37 cities have some type of video surveillance program
    • 18 cities have significant video surveillance programs of public streets and plazas; an additional 10 jurisdictions are actively considering such expansive programs
    • 18 cities have systems in which police actively monitor the cameras
    • Only 11 police departments have policies that even purport to regulate the use of video surveillance cameras
    • No jurisdiction has conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the cameras’ effectiveness

2. Surveillance cameras are being installed in large numbers in part because the Department of Homeland Security is giving communities “free” money to install them. Actually, it’s not free because it comes from taxes. Who would have thunk? Also, it seems that DHS is getting something like 2.something billion dollars a year, in part to propagate surveillance cameras! This is money that was taken away from the kinds of programs that the mayor of Richmond was talking about.

3. I kind of “knew” this already, but it was reinforced at the event: surveillance is not only the problem of people who are “doing something wrong.”

  • As Ozer pointed out, people act differently when they know they’re being watched. This isn’t a “more innocently” differently, it’s an “afraid of being misunderstood by those watching” differently.
  • Many perfectly innocent activities are being labeled suspicious by those in charge of installing/watching the cameras, such as: sitting on your porch in the evening with a couple friends, putting a backpack or bag down in a park for more than 30 seconds, taking a photograph of a landmark building, giving someone change for a twenty on the street, etc.
  • Being watched/recorded infringes on some rights such as the right to association and the right to distribute leaflets anonymously (yes, people can see you do these things in real life right now but peoples’ eyes don’t have facial recognition software that checks against humongous government databases).

4. London has been doing the surveillance thing for 10 years now and has spent 400 million pounds on it. They’ve got cameras everywhere; people are captured 300 times a day on average, I think the stat was. Every five minutes. Anyway, here are some things that London’s experiment has shown us:

  • There is no proven difference in crime prevention/solving rates on streets with a dozen cameras or a hundred cameras.
  • People don’t feel safer thanks to the cameras; they tend to avoid going near them for fear that they were set up because the area is crime-ridden.
  • Cameras don’t really deter criminals.

5. We do have a right to privacy beyond our front doors. Privacy is not a matter of location but person; just as you can’t be searched beyond a pat-down without a warrant, you shouldn’t be able to have your every move recorded by the government. Further complicating this matter is that the records kept by these surveillance cameras are not public records. Basically, the advocates of the cameras claim that they don’t infringe on privacy rights only to then say that the footage they took of you on the public street (not private) is private (private?). Ozer said something along the lines of “either there’s no privacy on the street or there is!”

6. These cameras can be used malignantly when watched. The surveillance programs seem to always start with a few unmanned cameras. When these prove ineffective, then they go to more unmanned cameras (in the case of San Francisco, 2->70). Then, if these prove ineffective, they get people to watch the cameras. This leads to discriminatory use; particularly targeting youths, women, and people of color, according to Ozer’s presentation.

7. There was also something about how Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are terrible because they’re rarely as well-protected as they should be. This means that many people with “reader” devices can theoretically read your personal information … especially with the new RFID credit cards (which have no protection whatsoever). I think this point came up under the problem of “combined technologies” and how, by using different bits of modern tech, the government can effectively 1984 us.

Anyway, I could go on for a while longer. Those seemed like the more important points I’d retained. Here’s a link to the ACLU report “Under the Watchful Eye: The Proliferation of Video Surveillance Systems in California,” which was pretty much what Ozer talked about most of the time. There were some other issues that came up, like feds taking digital pictures, your rights and privacy with online sites like flickr (and probably every Web 2.0 site in existence), wi-fi hot spots, etc.

But basically, say no to surveillance? It’s not good already on the basis that it limits our democraticness by infringing our anonymity in our First Amendment rights (key to a democracy, if I recall correctly). Then there’re the issues of abuse, and ineffectiveness, and so on.

I enjoyed the event. Not in the sense that I particularly liked what was discussed, but in the sense that it was my first time at something like this and it was incredibly interesting. That people actually meet up to find out about issues like this, and give money to non-profits like the ACLU Foundation to fight for their rights—that some people care!—was kind of reassuring, though at least a few people there seemed overly zealous in their hatred for current trends in policy…

Oh. I walked away from the event with two things I didn’t have before attending: a guide on how to deal with police officers, and a cool laptop sticker, pictured below:
aclu sticker