In recent years, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office has built an extensive network of surveillance cameras. The office says it’s crucial to solving crimes, but the technology has raised concerns about privacy and cybersecurity.
The Caucus newspaper reported Tuesday that, in the last five years, District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s office has spent $1.5 million on more than 1,000 cameras.
Journalist Mike Wereschagin wrote the Caucus story, and on Tuesday, he told 90.5 WESA’s The Confluence that the camera network has helped to solve a range of crimes.
Those include “kidnappings, hit-and-run accidents, thefts, all sorts of things,” Wereschagin said. “They’ve helped locate elderly people who have wandered away.”
But Wereschagin said privacy advocates worry the cameras could track people’s movements for months at a time. A company that monitors the devices found that they capture more than 7 million license plate numbers a week, Wereschagin reported.
The DA's office would not disclose the name of the firm that monitors the network, despite a formal records request. The Caucus has appealed that decision to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records.
But other documents obtained through a Right-to-Know request, The Caucus reported, indicate that the camera system stores data long enough to retrace a vehicle’s whereabouts as far back as six months.
“Privacy advocates will tell you that they’re a little nervous that somebody can punch in a license plate and track your movements over the past six months,” Wereschagin said.
A bill pending in the state House would restrict the use of data collected from automated license plate readers, though it would also create grants for municipalities that wish to obtain the technology. Meanwhile, use of the cameras has already spread beyond the county line. The Caucus reported that the district attorneys for Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties have also joined the network.
Facial recognition a concern
A spokesman for the district attorney’s office, Mike Manko, wrote to WESA in an email that the cameras have enabled local police to review or investigate several hundred more cases each day. That means law enforcement is much more likely to solve crimes, he said.
Last year, the district attorney announced that cameras in Pittsburgh’s South Side had helped to reduce the neighborhood’s crime rate by 37 percent over an eight-month period.
"You've got to be an idiot if you think you're going to get away with hurting somebody with that type of technology in play," Zappala said at the time. "If you come down here looking for trouble, you're going to find it."
Still, there is concern that the district attorney’s office could use facial recognition to follow people. The Caucus reported that a project manager on Zappala’s staff, Dick Skrinjar, said publicly that the office planned to use facial recognition to keep tabs on an estimated 2,000 juveniles who are on probation.
Manko, the DA’s spokesman, said the network does not currently use facial recognition. But he acknowledged that the DA’s office had “discussed the use of facial recognition technology with school administrators.”
Another concern is that at least some of the DA’s cameras are manufactured by Chinese firms. Experts said the entire system is especially vulnerable to cyberattacks, according to The Caucus story.
“The reason for that is they have security vulnerabilities, or ... the companies that make them have very close ties to the Chinese government,” Wereschagin said.
Manko wrote that hacking is “not a significant concern,” in part because of "security protocols that would let us know of an intrusion."