Thursday, May 02, 2013

Surveillance cameras and signage

This morning I went to testify in the Texas House Homeland and Public Safety Committee for a quirky little bill, HB 3165, by freshman state Rep. Jon Stickland, which essentially has two parts: 1) It would require local governments to post signage at surveillance cameras that declare, e.g., "Warning, you are under Surveillance by the City of Dallas." (Could we amend that, I wonder, to require an exclamation point?) And 2) it would require local governments to post live feeds of all their surveillance cameras online. Quite a piece of legislation, that! Not something I was part of bringing forward but the bill author asked if I'd speak on it and having nothing else pressing on my agenda at 8 a.m., I thought, "why not?" What follows is a summary of my testimony.

First, I argued to the committee, requiring signage would increase the deterrent value of the cameras and therefore increase public safety. Studies in the UK, which as chairman Joe Pickett pointed out is the most surveilled nation on the planet, have found very little crime fighting bang for the buck from cameras. They are most effective for use on high-value targets and then only if they're monitored in real time. Indeed, I told the committee, if the goal is public safety and you had to choose between the camera and the sign, Rep. Stickland's sign would probably do more to reduce crime than the camera. Rep. Dan Flynn agreed, noting that banks he'd worked at routinely posted signs advertising cameras were watching without the cameras actually functioning, at least until federal law began to require them to have working surveillance units. Merely advertising cameras' presence was generally considered sufficient deterrence.

During Rep. Stickland's opening, Chairman Joe Pickett asked about cameras at the Boston Marathon bombing, wondering what would have happened if the attackers had seen one of Stickland's signs. I raised that example again, suggesting that it was possible the bombers, who after all were relatively young, would have moved to a spot where there was no signage. Well, what if there were surveillance all the way down the last half mile of the marathon route? Then the signs, if they'd been in place, might have served to move the bombers out of the area with the most people. You never know. Otherwise, I reminded them, because of personal cell phone cameras, businesses surveillance footage, etc., there were plenty of pictures from every imaginable angle. The difficulty was isolating the culprits.

Rep. Kenneth Sheets thought it unnecessary and potentially distracting to put such signs near traffic cameras. I replied that a sign saying their driving was being monitored by camera might make people drive better, but allowed that perhaps a carve out could be made for traffic cameras, especially if limits were placed on law enforcement uses like license plate identification, facial recognition software, etc..

In the bigger picture, I pointed out, though the bill author wasn't around to remember it, Stickland's bill amounts to pushback against a bad law passed in 2003 in reaction to 9/11 that made all information about surveillance cameras a closed record: Where they are, specs of the instruments, policies for how the images will be used, who has access to them, etc.. Rather than make the back-end records public about where the government has surveillance cameras, which is what we lost in 2003, Stickland's bill would put the information in your face everywhere you're surveilled, which is a lot of places! Still, in a real sense this bill amounts to an extreme antidote to the opacity regarding surveillance foisted on Texans after 9/11.

Technology evolves, I reminded the committee, and the uses of camera technology are changing rapidly. Both the government (especially the FBI and NSA) and the private sector (especially Facebook) are developing incredibly robust facial recognition systems. Today, remote biometric recognition is not just possible but rapidly improving. Faces, iris scans, even walking gaits can identify individuals via cameras. Once police begin to integrate systems it could make routine a brand of Big-Brotheresque surveillance that a decade ago was still relegated to the realm of futuristic movies. There are already pedestrian-level billboards in Japan and Las Vegas that analyze the biometrics of passersby to target advertising based on age, gender and other basic characteristics. The day is coming when such billboards will identify you via facial recognition, analyze your Facebook page and other public data, and target advertising to you individually.

It's one thing for private companies to use such tech to try to sell you something, but quite another for the government to use it for law enforcement purposes. In a world where that sort of invasive technology exists - where we can see the day coming when a person will be innocently walking down the street, spotted by a camera connected to a government database, identified via facial recognition or other biometrics and quickly have a Big-Data style background search run on them to discover any possible red flag, all automatically, via algorithm - people deserve to be warned. Whether Rep. Stickland's idea of physical signage within 10 feet of the camera is the best or most effective means is a matter one can debate. I've heard worse suggestions. But I do think the public has a right to know when their government is watching them.

The only opposition was from a fellow from the city of Austin who said they have around 900 traffic cameras and perhaps 250 surveillance cameras. They don't want to put up signs and I don't blame them. As Rep. Stickland pointed out, they would always have the option of removing cameras.

The idea behind having all the footage from government surveillance cameras online, as I understand it, is an effort to ensure the government isn't using the cameras for things they shouldn't be by letting everyone see what they're looking at. But local government and other state reps rightly complained that that could entail a significant fiscal note. It struck me that the same thing could be accomplished with no fiscal note just by reversing the 2003 legislation that made all that footage, the policies, etc., a closed record. That would be a a fine open-government substitute and would eliminate most of the fiscal burden on the locals that seemed to be the primary source of opposition.

Of course, this is one of those statement bills that's already deceased by the time it was heard. Short of an act of God, there's likely not enough time for it to make it through the process. But I was glad to see a Tea-Party affiliated freshman beginning to engage on these privacy and surveillance issues and must say I was surprised that the committee's concerns were more technical and practical than hostile to Mr. Stickland's purpose. With a little more time over the interim to clean the bill up and address some legitimate concerns of stakeholders, perhaps he could do some business in that committee next session with this bill.

See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

What steams me is that they had the Boston bombers under surveillance. What a violation of their rights!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Your troll-fu is weak, 8:34.

Anonymous said...

Surveillance cameras don't reduce crime.

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