Thursday, January 31, 2013

The surveillance story: The rest of us

Please provide me all records of any communications in any form from January 23, 2013 through today, inclusive, regarding Yes!Weekly, including but not limited to any records documenting discussing options for or attempts to restrain the paper's distribution. 
-- Records request made of the City of Greensboro yesterday by this blogger
Last September, I met with Yes!Weekly publisher Brian Clarey and reporter Eric Ginsburg to discuss my interest in writing a story about the extent and means by which the City of Greensboro conducts surveillance on its citizens. My interest in writing about the subject was inspired by the slow walk and outright denials that met my requests for records about the subject from the City last summer. It is documented that the City responds to records requests faster for employees of the media than for other citizens and I thought Yes!'s additional resources might add some muscle to my efforts. While we couldn't work out a suitable arrangement, I'm glad that Yes! decided to pursue the story on their own.

Reporter Eric Ginsburg has discovered some important and disturbing information about how the police monitor certain groups, including a rather astonishing email in which a police sergeant identifies City Councilor Marikay Abujuatier as a confidential informant. Ginsburg's story is a must read, deploying the kind of fearless skepticism Greensboro counts on from its alternate weeklies and opening our eyes to the unseen activities of our local government.

The Rest of Us

There is another question, however, that remains unanswered: To what extent are rest of us—the public at large—being monitored while we go about our business under the impression that we are doing so in obscurity.

Since July of last year, I have been trying to get an answer to that question through public records requests. It began simply enough, with a request for records documenting the number and location of surveillance cameras. Some cameras are in public view, on streets and in parking decks, but what, I wondered, is the full extent of this watching?

How many cameras does the City deploy that are less obvious than those you'll see at some intersections, if you look; cameras like those in and pointing out from City buses? What about cameras intentionally hidden? (Ginsburg reports of a cop in disguise, riding on a float in the Fourth of July Parade and recording video from a camera hidden in the horn of a trumpet.) Does the city deploy cameras that track and pan to follow people? Are they also recording sound? Who is watching what they record?

It is known that private foundations have purchased surveillance cameras to be trained on public spaces, such as those purchased by Action Greensboro to surveill the Greenway. Who's monitoring those cameras? Who is watching the video recorded by the cameras in the quasi-public space of Center City Park? When and why?

Greensboro has never had a public discussion, much less implemented any policy directives addressing the extent and means by which government or agents acting on its behalf monitor the public at-large. A good place to start, I thought, would be with an understanding of the degree to which such surveillance is underway. Thus I made my request for this information.

Request Denied

My request was denied by the city attorney who maintained that a state law passed after 9/11 and intended to protect infrastructure from terrorists permits cities to keep records about the number and location of surveillance cameras secret. That law does not mandate that the City must keep such information secret, just that, in the city attorney's opinion, it gives them the option of doing so and he chose to exercise that option, denying me records that would report the location and number of surveillance cameras.

I attempted to get Mayor Robbie Perkins and City Manager Denise Turner to intervene but neither took any action of which I'm aware to reverse or challenge the City Attorney's opinion, acquiescing to it through their inaction.

A Different Approach

Confronted with that refusal, I attempted to ascertain the information through requests for records that would be more clearly mandated as public and subject to disclosure, such as purchase records or recordings of video from these cameras. The ensuing slog resulted in an incomplete picture, the city attorney continued to use the anti-terrorism law to withhold records that would provide clear and definitive information. Some records were released; video from the libraries (after hours to protect patron anonymity) was provided, for example, while video from buses (inside or out) was not.

An important component to my requests was for information about who is watching. The response to my request for records documenting that access was suspiciously thin. I received a single record, clearly not a copy of any original record, described as being a redacted compilation of log files of internet access to unspecified cameras by persons described as "security guards."

Are other people monitoring surveillance cameras? Is the City keeping records of who is watching and why? It has been, thus far, impossible to definitively document an answer to either of those questions but the single record of access by security guards does not inspire confidence.

The Next Step

It is incredibly frustrating for an individual citizen to find themselves in an adversarial role against government workers when attempting to find out what our government is up to. City employees get paid whether they provide records or not. Without loud and clear directives to cooperate with citizens or risk losing their jobs, their cooperation is capricious. A recent change in state law allows for the prevailing party in a records lawsuit to collect the cost of suing for records from a municipality found to have improperly kept records secret, but that is an even more time consuming proposition that relies on either the deep pockets this bloggers does not have or an interested attorney this blogger does not know.

The next best thing is a robust press. It is such a worn out refrain to lament the News & Record's lack of initiative on these kinds of stories that it is almost not worth mentioning and yet... and local TV news has a hard time with these kinds of stories, so not much is expected from them. That leaves the alternative weeklies.

Of course, the real responsibility lies with us. It is our government, after all, and we live in a democracy—a representative democracy. Despite keeping city council apprised of my efforts and of the city's responses, our representatives have been ineffective in getting the city to reveal details of its public surveillance. There is an election this fall, however. Until then, Ginsburg is our best hope.


Billy Jones said...

I also wonder if police are also able to hack into or otherwise use the many private Internet based cameras that are hidden from the public but available to anyone with the IP address and password. For example: At my last job I could watch the security cameras from any Internet connection anywhere and those cameras have amazing capabilities.

Anonymous said...

"Ginsburg's story is a must read,"

A stellar example of investigative journalism of which the N&R is unable to match.


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