Should Law Enforcement Tell the Public About New Surveillance Tech?

A recent investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED revealed that in 2012, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department piloted a wide-area surveillance program – except it didn’t tell the public.

The two-week program used high-powered surveillance cameras attached to a manned civilian aircraft, which flew over Compton for six hours a day. CIR reporter G.W. Schulz described it in his story as “Google Earth with a rewind button and the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city.”

Although the experiment produced images that were ultimately too grainy to be useful for the department’s investigation of a theft, the secrecy of the operation has angered residents and civil libertarians.

Sgt. Doug Iketani, who supervised the project, acknowledged the department’s lack of public disclosure, telling CIR and KQED: “The system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public. A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush.”

But recently, when asked again why officials didn’t inform the public of the wide-area surveillance, sheriff’s department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida told the Los Angeles Times: “Citizens weren’t notified because cameras were already installed in Compton on the ground.”

Compton’s $2.7 million program for ground surveillance cameras, which is publicly known, will install about 75 cameras on major thoroughfares.

CIR and KQED’s reporting and the sheriff’s department’s lack of transparency led to an editorial from the Times, saying: “Citizens in a democracy need to be aware of their choices in order to make educated decisions. The most egregious thing about the Compton surveillance test was not that it was done but that the department chose not to tell Compton’s elected officials or its residents about it ahead of time.”

For many, including Compton Mayor Aja Brown, the incremental creep of mass surveillance technologies requires an open comment period from the public. Brown, who has called for a “citizen privacy protection policy,” told the Times, “There is nothing worse than believing you are being observed by a third party unnecessarily. We want to assure the peace of mind of our citizens.”

Unlike individual searches and seizures, there isn’t much regulation on how police should inform the public of their use of mass surveillance tactics, according to Elizabeth Joh, a professor of criminal law and procedure at the University of California, Davis.

Joh said there’s “an understandable need from law enforcement’s side to keep these kinds of devices secret, because they don’t want that information to get into the wrong hands. Then that technology becomes less effective than it could have been.”

Compton wasn’t the first city to have surveillance planes fly overhead. Lancaster, California, launched a similar “eye in the sky” plane in August 2012, but had been considering it – and met with public resistance – as far back as 2009.

Oakland had proposed a Domain Awareness Center to streamline intelligence monitoring of gunshot detectors, Twitter feeds, surveillance cameras and license-plate data. But after months of opposition from residents and watchdog groups, the City Council recently voted to drastically scale back the original proposal.

There’s a critical question, Joh said, of what the police owes to a community, especially because many people minding their own business also are covered by this surveillance.

What do you think? Should law enforcement agencies inform communities before they use new policing technologies?

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