Mayor Adrian Fenty has published an “Emergency Rulemaking” (pdf) for the “Video Interoperability for Public Safety” (VIPS) program without consulting the public or the DC Council. The rules were published on Friday, but have secretly been in effect since June 12. The Examiner has a story on the rules here.
VIPS is a massive centralized surveillance system that would allow the DC Homeland Security agency to link and watch more than 5,200 cameras in District schools, public housing, the parks, streets, and more. The program was announced on April 8 without any input from either the public or the DC Council. The Fenty administration said the surveillance system would be used even though no regulations were in place to safeguard individuals’ privacy and civil rights.
It is appalling that the Fenty administration created this massive surveillance system in secret, pushed privacy and civil liberties questions aside claiming they would be dealt with later, and then self-imposed regulations upon itself without any discussion with the public or the DC Council.
After the April 8 announcement of the program, the DC Council denied District funding for it, but the Fenty administration went ahead with the centralized, city-wide surveillance system using funds from the federal Department of Homeland Security. At a DC Council committee hearing on the program earlier this month, Councilmember Mary Cheh asked Dan Tangherlini, D.C. City Administrator, why there was such a rush — why couldn’t the city take the time to determine which departments would be involved, how they would share the data and what privacy and civil liberty safeguards should be in place before the city began linking up the 5,200 cameras? Tangherlini had no real answer other than to say there was a rush because currently the different departments were operating under different policies and the city didn’t want that to continue.
The emergency regulations are vague as to the purposes of the system, which include “enhance public safety,” but do not include any measurements by which the centralized surveillance system could be judged effective at enhancing public safety. The regulations also create possibilities for video surveillance that includes audio monitoring, as well. District residents could be watched and their personal conversations recorded.
The regulations claim to protect First Amendment rights and prohibit CCTV operators from “focus[ing] in on hand bill, fliers, etc., being distributed or carried pursuant to First Amendment rights.” Yet the regulations do not prohibit CCTV operators from focusing in on or identifying individuals exercising the First Amendment rights to free and anonymous speech.
A ubiquitous, centralized surveillance system raises a number of privacy and civil liberty risks and the emergency regulations are not enough to protect District residents and visitors from misuse or abuse of the system. Read my previous post about the program and my testimony to the DC Council earlier this month here. I discuss these privacy and civil liberty problems and pose possible ways to mitigate the risks.