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Sheriff Sought Controversial Surveillance Software

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern wanted to test a system that likely would have used facial-recognition software at an Oakland Raiders' home game.

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Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern is already in the national spotlight over a contentious proposal to purchase drones to assist sheriff's deputies in a broad range of duties. However, drones are not the only surveillance technology that interests Ahern. Documents obtained by the Express reveal that Ahern approached AEG, the private company that operates the Oakland Coliseum and Arena, concerning a test of a surveillance system that likely intended to employ facial-recognition software at an Oakland Raiders' home game, thereby raising new concerns about law enforcement and privacy issues in the East Bay.

On October 25, Sheriff Ahern sent a letter to AEG Vice President Chris Wright, who is the facilities manager at the Coliseum and Arena, asking to test a product made by Intelligence Based Integrated Security Systems Inc., known as IBIS2. The patent-pending surveillance system from IBIS2 uses "intelligent video" technology that has civil libertarians on their guard.

Stan Kephart, the chief executive officer of IBIS2, met with Sheriff's Office officials several times and demonstrated the potential benefits of the security system, according to Ahern's letter, along with an interview with the sheriff. IBIS2's product was developed by a team of eleven former law enforcement officials headed by Kephart, who was in charge of security for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In interviews, Ahern and Kephart would not disclose specifics about the technology. However, Kephart did confirm that "intelligent video" was a feature of IBIS2. "It relies heavily on technology that deals with pre-emption," he said.

IBIS2 sought to conduct a field test in Oakland because of the bad-boy image of Raiders' fans. "If you ask ten NFL fans which team they associate with violence, they'll most likely say the Raiders," said Kephart. He cited two shootings at a pre-season game between the Raiders and San Francisco 49ers as another reason for wanting to test his system in the Bay Area. It should be noted, however, that those shootings occurred at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

Two of the most widely used intelligent video applications are for automated license-plate recognition, used by law enforcement throughout the country, and facial recognition, a highly controversial technology that is used by casinos and law enforcement alike. Facial-recognition software matches a photo taken from a surveillance camera with image databases. Critics contend that it could be misused by law enforcement to track people's movements without a warrant.

Ahern's October 25 letter to AEG strongly indicated that the technology would be used for both license-plate and facial recognition. Ahern wrote that IBIS2's product would be used "in or around sports venues," including parking lots, and would provide law enforcement with the capability for "instant data retrieval resulting in preemptive action." Ahern also wrote that the system could "be utilized to detect persons of interest, wanted criminals, parole and probation violators, state certified gang members, and repeat fan violence offenders." Such detection capabilities likely could not be derived from reading license plates alone.

"It's extremely troubling to the ACLU that law enforcement is exploring potentially intrusive surveillance technology without a transparent decision-making process and opportunity for public input," said Linda Lye, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California who has raised concerns about Ahern's intent to acquire drones.

Sheriff Ahern told the Express that he did not seek out the technology, and agreed to ask AEG for a test after a year of negotiations with IBIS2 and refusing to sign a confidentiality agreement. "I had no say about whether this gets into the Coliseum," Ahern said.

AEG, however, decided not to approve the test, although its reasons remain unclear. Wright did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Mark Kaufman, the former executive director of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority, said the public agency was not made aware of Ahern's request last fall. In addition, Michael Taylor, spokesman for he Raiders, said his organization was not approached about IBIS2.

Regardless, overbroad data collection by law enforcement and a lack of transparency about surveillance programs are already a reality in the Bay Area. Michael Katz-Lacabe, a San Leandro resident and school board member who works in computer security, discovered a regional law enforcement database of license-plate data collected and stored by the Northern California Regional Information Center (NCRIC), a joint federal, state, and local law enforcement effort. Palantir, the company that won the contract to build the database, is a private intelligence firm established in 2004 that specializes in mining massive data sets for the national security apparatus.

Katz-Lacabe's research began with public records requests to the San Leandro Police Department for information about its artificial intelligence-gathering program, which wasn't approved by the city council and was acquired with federal grant money. When Katz-Lacabe's request for documentation was denied by San Leandro police because of "intelligence concerns," he submitted public records requests to every law enforcement agency in Alameda, Napa, San Francisco, and Sonoma counties. Katz-Lacabe's requests revealed that NCRIC wants its artificial-intelligence database to include more than twenty law enforcement agencies. So far, Daly City, Milpitas, San Francisco, and San Leandro have signed memoranda of understanding with NCRIC. "This collection of data is gathered because it might be useful in the future," Katz-Lacabe said. "Now they can track you in multiple cities, and there are lots of sensitive data that can be gathered from this system."

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