Lexington Park Cameras Raise Broader Concerns

The placement of cameras at Berry Hill Skate Park raises broader questions about surveillance in Lexington.

What other surveillance technologies do the Lexington Police Department utilize? What policies have the LPD and other city agencies put in place to regulate the use of spy-gear? How do they store and share data? Have government agencies in Lexington developed any policies relating to surveillance to protect privacy?Does any judicial oversight exist?

The process leading up to the installation of the cameras in the park indicates the Department of Public Safety operates surveillance system with very little substantive oversight. While the City Council did hold a hearing and approved the cameras, there was no debate about the potential privacy issues. Council Member Angela Evans did raise privacy concerns, but she was effectively dismissed. The council never discussed the issues she raised in depth.

Additionally, the council received no community input. Department of Public Safety administrative officer Dean Marcum emphasized the importance of “neighborhood buy-in” before installing the cameras. Nevertheless, the city provided no notice to the neighborhood. The cameras just appeared one day.

We also have strong indication that the Department of Public Safety has not developed any kind of comprehensive surveillance plan and doesn’t have firm policies in place related to data storage and sharing. In a response to our request for information on the Berry Hill cameras, Marcum said, “This is being developed as part of the pilot.”

In other words, the city installed the cameras with no plan or policies in place.

This raises serious concerns considering the growing use of surveillance technology across the United States. Lexington needs to put policies in place – now – before surveillance programs proliferate. These policies need to include transparency and accountability.

Local police departments have access to a mind-boggling array of spy-gear that would send Big Brother into convulsions of envy.

Late last year, OffNow, a national organization fighting the surveillance state, reported on a secret U.S. government catalogue of cellphone surveillance devices used by the military and intelligence agencies. At the time, this equipment was already beginning to filter down to state and local law enforcement agencies.  Now we have more evidence that state and local law enforcement agencies continue to procure a wide range of high-tech surveillance gear with sweeping capabilities.

Recently, The Intercept obtained a leaked confidential 120-page catalogue circulated to U.S. law enforcement agencies, including local police departments. The equipment offered by the British defense firm Cobham includes gear that can intercept and monitor cell phone calls and text messages, jam cellular communications in certain areas and track the locations of individual phones.

The Intercept obtained the catalogue as part of a collection of documents obtained from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Spokesperson Molly Best confirmed Cobham wares have been purchased but did not provide further information. The document provides a rare look at the wide range of electronic surveillance tactics used by police and militaries in the U.S. and abroad, offering equipment ranging from black boxes that can monitor an entire town’s cellular signals to microphones hidden in lighters and cameras hidden in trashcans. Markings date it to 2014.

The capabilities and intrusiveness of spy gear available to local police departments boggles the mind. For instance, one page in the catalogue describes “Cellular Surveillance.”

Solutions are typically used for:

  • Counter terrorism and organized crime operations, identifying and monitoring suspects, exploring target details and intercepting outgoing voice calls and SMS messages.
  •  Situational control, enabling identification and network denial of cellular devices through ‘intelligent’ jamming, including creating controlled areas of coverage.
  • Suspect geo-locating capabilities.

The company claims its gear can locate and track a cellphone user within 1 meter.

The catalogue also features page after page of tools for covert spying, including audio and video sensors hidden in everyday items ranging from clocks, birdhouses, outdoor trash bins and pocketknives.

State and local law enforcement agencies often obtain these expensive spy gadgets through federal grants and other funding sources that remain “off the books.” In other words, they can purchase high-tech surveillance equipment without any local government or public oversight. In fact, city councils, county governments and mayors may not even know police have obtained the equipment.

The entire surveillance industry operates under a veil of secrecy. Grants often come with non-disclosure agreements attached. We know for a fact the FBI required the Baltimore Police Department to sign such an agreement when it obtained stingray technology. This policy of nondisclosure even extends to the courtroom, with the feds actually instructing prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions on the stand during a trial, citing a federal nondisclosure agreement.

Defense attorney Joshua Insley asked Detective Cabreja about the agreement.

“Does this document instruct you to withhold evidence from the state’s attorney and Circuit Court, even upon court order to produce?” he asked.

“Yes,” Cabreja said.

As privacysos.org put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”

This veil of secrecy means police often use this spy gear with little or no oversight. Does Lexington utilize this type of equipment. That remains unclear. We See You Watching Lexington has submitted open record requests seeking information about the city’s surveillance equipment and policies.

But even if Lexington does not currently use the most intrusive spy-gear available, that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. The lack of substantive council oversight and community involvement magnifies this concern.

The state of Kentucky and the LFUCG can utilize a two-step process to limit the use of this invasive surveillance technology in Lexington and throughout the commonwealth.

First, law enforcement agencies should be required to get local government approval before purchasing any spy equipment. The process should include full public disclosure and an opportunity for the community to weigh in. This creates an environment of transparency and accountability, and will naturally limit the types of equipment police departments can acquire.

Second, the state should set strict limits on the use of surveillance equipment such as cell site simulators, automatic license plate readers, and other audio and video devices. Laws regulating use of surveillance equipment should include warrant requirements, and strict limits on data sharing.

While legitimate law enforcement uses arguably exists for some of this technology, police should not be able to use it with no oversight or limitations. This is the kind of pervasive surveillance Big Brother could only dream of.

Photo By WiredforLego via Flickr.

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