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As the mayoral election approaches, San Diego’s two candidates are eager to articulate for voters their vision for the city’s future.
They’ve offered blueprints for infrastructure, development, the economy and even government transparency. But as the national debate rages over privacy in the digital age, the candidates should also go on the record about how they will protect civil liberties as law enforcement agencies propose and adopt new technologies.
On its current path, San Diego is emerging as the advance guard of the surveillance state, but the city’s leaders have the opportunity to start the region on a new trajectory that protects citizens’ rights without compromising public safety.
The next mayor will exert great influence over law enforcement priorities as a member of the board of the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), the often-overlooked but very powerful regional planning agency.
Sometimes described as the county’s equivalent of the United Nations, SANDAG is governed by elected officials from each of the area’s municipalities, who craft and fund a wide array of programs from transportation to land use. Through the Automated Regional Justice Information System, SANDAG also serves as the central hub for public safety endeavors. That includes implementing new surveillance technologies.
Civil liberties groups, such as the ACLU and the organization I work for, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are concerned about SANDAG’s rush to experiment with these new technologies with little regard for the impact this surveillance will have on both privacy rights and San Diego’s culture of freedom.
One such technology is automatic license plate readers, frequently referred to as ALPRs. These are digital cameras mounted on patrol cars and fixed locations that record the license plate numbers of every car that passes. These cameras record millions of data points in aggregate each month, which are maintained in a SANDAG database. This gives local law enforcement detailed travel histories of virtually every person with a car in San Diego County.
Using these readers isn’t simply surveillance. It’s a program that gathers evidence on the public en masse, regardless of whether a driver is suspected of a crime.
SANDAG has also used federal funds to experiment with facial recognition with its Tactical Identification System. This program has provided more than 175 mobile devices to local law enforcement agencies around the county. These smart phones and tablets are capable of taking photos of individuals — either in person or using images from other sources, such as social media or security videos — and matching them to mugshots and potentially DMV records.
Members of a special class of police officers known as “terrorism liaison officers” operate the devices, although the program itself has little connection to terrorism. So far, the “success stories” appearing in SANDAG reports are limited to parolees, hit-and-run suspects, undocumented immigrants, gang members, “flop house” occupants and, in one case, a robbery suspect.
Aside from serving as a time-saving device, the rationale for this technology is weak.
As of October 2013, a San Diego State University police officer had used his facial recognition device 224 times, raising serious questions about the threshold for use. Just as New York has come under fire for its stop-and-frisk policy, San Diego could soon find itself in the middle of a stop-and-scan scandal.
“Papers, please,” could become “Facial features, please.”
In reports, officials have explained that the next step may be to install cameras capable of facial recognition in public spaces, such as on buses or in court buildings.
Other surveillance programs may be in the pipeline, from drones in the air to bicycle and pedestrian detectors on the roadway, threatening the very concept of anonymity in public spaces.
As a champion of San Diego’s minority communities, David Alvarez should be an advocate for a population that often faces disproportionately more police stops, and is most likely to be subjected to mobile facial recognition scans.
Alvarez should think about the effect on his community: Immigrant and homeless populations could become afraid to use public transit or seek social services lest the features of their faces trigger police alerts.
As the conservative in the race, Kevin Faulconer should listen to local libertarians, like businessman Michael Robertson, who is suing SANDAG over ALPR records. These programs are evidence of big government intrusion into the private lives of citizens.
The argument is often made that if you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from mass surveillance. That claim rings hollow for anyone who has ever found themselves politically at odds with the government.
It also makes the erroneous assumption that law enforcement is infallible. Not long ago, the San Diego Police Department was embroiled in scandal when an officer, Anthony Arevalos, was caught sexually abusing women during traffic stops. He used photos, obtained from existing databases, to brag about the women he stopped. One can only imagine how he would’ve used mobile facial recognition.
During public meetings, members of SANDAG regularly applaud the technological efforts of law enforcement but fail to ask any hard questions about privacy. During the upcoming forums and debates, voters and the media must question the candidates about these issues.
The next mayor of San Diego should pledge to bring healthy skepticism to SANDAG. Otherwise, 10 years from now, San Diegans might find that America’s Finest City has become America’s Most Surveilled City.
Dave Maass is media relations coordinator and investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Maass’ commentary has been lightly edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.