The New York Times considers the privacy problems that can arise as cities increase their surveillance of the population at large, moving toward a surveillance society where people are watched at all times. I wrote about this issue several years ago in a chapter for a book about public spaces in contemporary society. The Times considers a surveillance program in Oakland and, once again, there are questions about what happens to the data and how long it is kept — especially when no crime is committed and the individuals being watched are innocent:
OAKLAND, Calif. — Federal grants of $7 million awarded to this city were meant largely to help thwart terror attacks at its bustling port. But instead, the money is going to a police initiative that will collect and analyze reams of surveillance data from around town — from gunshot-detection sensors in the barrios of East Oakland to license plate readers mounted on police cars patrolling the city’s upscale hills.
The new system, scheduled to begin next summer, is the latest example of how cities are compiling and processing large amounts of information, known as big data, for routine law enforcement. And the system underscores how technology has enabled the tracking of people in many aspects of life.
The police can monitor a fire hose of social media posts to look for evidence of criminal activities; transportation agencies can track commuters’ toll payments when drivers use an electronic pass; and the National Security Agency, as news reports this summer revealed, scooped up telephone records of millions of cellphone customers in the United States. […]
Proponents of the Oakland initiative, formally known as the Domain Awareness Center, say it will help the police reduce the city’s notoriously high crime rates. But critics say the program, which will create a central repository of surveillance information, will also gather data about the everyday movements and habits of law-abiding residents, raising legal and ethical questions about tracking people so closely. […]
The city plans to staff the center around the clock. If there is an incident, workers can analyze the many sources of data to give leads to the police, fire department or Coast Guard. In the absence of an incident, how the data would be used and how long it would be kept remain largely unclear. […]
Far less advanced surveillance programs have elicited resistance at the local and state level. Iowa City, for example, recently imposed a moratorium on some surveillance devices, including license plate readers. The Seattle City Council forced its police department to return a federally financed drone to the manufacturer.