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Politics & Government

CMU Students Present Privacy and Surveillance Report to Police Chief, Councilman

After voting in favor of a 2015 budget amendment that would speed up the timeline for deployment of body-worn cameras for police officers, Councilman Dan Gilman on Wednesday held a post-agenda meeting on surveillance and privacy.

The city currently has a citywide closed circuit TV surveillance system, as well as 20 red light cameras. City code requires that areas under surveillance be clearly marked, and footage is only available as part of a criminal investigation. Additionally, 35 motorcycle and bicycle officers in the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police are currently piloting body-worn cameras.

Gilman said technology is changing quickly and it’s necessary to revisit the city’s surveillance policy.

“I can’t even imagine … in two years what technology we might be talking about, but I’m guessing it’s going to be something, if I said it now, you’d all laugh and think there’s no way,” Gilman said. “Clearly, the last 10 years has proven there is a way. Whether it’s satellite technology or other stuff, it’s clear municipal policing is going to change quickly.”

Present for the meeting were Pittsburgh Chief of Police Cameron McLay and Chief Innovation and Performance Officer Debra Lam.

“We’re coming to terms with how do we take this patchwork and develop an over-arching system that balances the privacy interest with the public safety need,” McLay said.

Students from Carnegie Mellon University’s Ethics, History and Public Policy program, from which Gilman graduated in 2004, presented their recommendations about what that system should look like.

In their capstone project, a report titled “Security and Social Dimensions of City Surveillance Policy,” the students took a broad view of surveillance on the municipal level, evaluating policies in other cities including Cleveland, Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif. They interviewed policy makers, law enforcement officials and legal experts to develop recommendations about how to balance privacy and public safety.

The Peduto administration has said they have plans to purchase as many as 1000 body-worn cameras in the next two years, and student Latif Elam said city officials should pay close attention to pilot body-camera deployments in other cities such as New York City and Rialto, Calif.

“If Pittsburgh does adopt body-worn cameras, city officials must ensure that policies are in place to minimize privacy effects on both citizens and officers,” Elam said.

Of concern to the students was the possibility that surveillance technologies could be used to discriminate against already marginalized groups, and their report recommended robust public and legislative oversight.

“We recommend enhanced oversight mechanisms,” said student Cameron Low. “Specifically a democratic oversight process whereby any city department intending to acquire, receive, borrow or share any surveillance technology must obtain City Council approval.”

Students also recommended that the city first survey residents and businesses about surveillance, privacy, and their level of satisfaction with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police before deploying any new technology, and specifically stated that questions about body-worn cameras should be included.

Additionally, the students analyzed cities’ data-sharing policies around information collected during surveillance activities. In Minneapolis, for example, vehicle-mounted cameras not only tracked and stored license plate numbers, but such data was publicly available to anyone.

“This sort of indiscriminate access to surveillance data can be problematic, as illustrated by the outcry against license plate data collection in 2012,” said student Rachel Ratzlaff Shriver. “During this incident, a reporter was able to track the Minneapolis mayor’s movement over the course of a year.”

Gilman has been a vocal proponent of open data policies, but agreed with the students that it’s possible for data-sharing to go too far, especially in the context of surveillance.

“When in doubt, I want the city to side on the rights of the innocent,” Gilman said. “Yes, we may once a year catch (someone committing a crime), but if we catch a lot of innocent people in the crossfire … of surveillance, we need to think twice, and just always have that civil liberties mindset as we make these decisions.”