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We Are Being Watched

Our fear of another 9/11 resulted in the erosion of our privacy rights. And now our fear of crime is pushing the surveillance state to a whole new level.



It's been a dozen years since three jetliners hurtled into the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon, leaving 2,996 people dead, injuring 6,000, and setting the stage for more than a decade of American war and occupation in Central Asia and the Middle East. The events on September 11 also resulted in the fundamental alteration of American society: Our international borders are now lined with additional fences, security cameras, and thousands of new Border Patrol agents as drones sweep the skies above. And the National Security Agency — first under President George W. Bush and now under President Barack Obama — routinely collects our phone records and emails and monitors our Internet activity.

Our government, in short, has increasingly infringed on our privacy rights and our civil liberties as part of the so-called War on Terror. And our nation, scarred by the fear of more terrorist attacks, has allowed it to happen. From Congress' easy passage of the Patriot Act to the mandatory use of biometrics to identify welfare recipients to the storing of arrestees' DNA in dozens of states — including California — regardless of whether they were convicted of a crime or not, these changes have penetrated every aspect of our relationship with government.

And now many local public agencies — backed by generous funding from the US Department of Homeland Security, an agency established to fight terrorism — are taking government surveillance to a new level: They're installing high-resolution surveillance cameras on street corners, buying license plate readers to monitor people's movements, and building large "intelligence centers" to collect and analyze data.

And they're doing it not to protect residents from the new threats posed by terrorists in the 21st century, but to combat an age-old societal fear: crime.

"Since 9/11, we've seen a huge shift with justifications and implementations," said Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Lye has emerged as one of the sharpest critics of law enforcement surveillance programs, speaking out against both the Alameda County Sheriff's proposed purchase of drones earlier this year and Oakland's sweeping new surveillance center. "On one hand, we've got the need to fight terrorism, but what we see on the ground is purportedly anti-terrorist strategies being deployed in fairly mundane ways that alter the relationship between the community and the government."

For example, there are now dozens of so-called "fusion centers" — intelligence centers initially set up by Department of Homeland Security for counter-terrorism purposes that are now migrating toward an "all-crimes" focus — across the country, including in San Francisco, where the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) is located. Law enforcement agencies around the region feed information to NCRIC through a system called Suspicious Activity Reporting, and each department has at least one "terrorist liaison officer" tasked with delivering potentially actionable information to the fusion center. There is also a strong connection between the expansion of the government's surveillance apparatus and the War on Drugs: NCRIC shares personnel and office space with the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal counter-narcotics effort that brings federal resources — including aspects of the US military — to bear on drug trafficking and drug-related crime.

The East Bay, long known for its progressive values, is not exempt from this trend. Years of spiraling crime in Oakland have provided the impetus for a rapid expansion of the surveillance and intelligence-gathering capabilities of area law enforcement. This summer's furor in Oakland over the construction of the Domain Awareness Center — a federally funded, citywide surveillance hub originally intended as an anti-terrorism tool for the Port of Oakland — is only the most overt manifestation of this trend. Cities as divergent as Piedmont, Richmond, and San Leandro have turned to surveillance systems that were designed originally to fight terrorism in order to deal with the threat — real or perceived — of violent crime.

At the same time, the rush by local governments to add new ways to keep tabs on citizens is being accompanied by virtually no oversight — and no laws designed to prevent abuses. The plethora of new surveillance programs is also raising questions about whether our local governments may soon have the ability to monitor our daily movements, using street cameras and license plate readers to track us from the time we leave our homes in the morning to when we return home at night — and whether such continual surveillance violates our constitutional rights. In addition, at least one high-ranking staffer in the City of Oakland has expressed the desire to use electronic surveillance to monitor political activity.

In other words, the privacy rights and civil liberties we've given up since 9/11 to fight the War on Terror are being further eroded in the Fight Against Crime.

The Domain Awareness Center — Oakland's planned surveillance hub that is being designed to collect data from at least 150 city and port cameras, 40 license plate readers, gunshot detectors, alarm notifications, and intelligent video programs — is the broadest surveillance project in the region and has attracted the most criticism. Funded entirely through federal grant money and being built on a contract by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) — a defense contractor with a record of making shoddy products; producing cost overruns; and defrauding municipal, federal, and foreign governments — the surveillance center has also attracted heavy criticism for its lack of privacy or data retention policies, as well as for its plans to incorporate cameras from the Oakland Unified School District, the Oakland Coliseum, and freeways.