Timeline: The Evolution of Lexington Surveillance

2007-The Lexington Police Department partners with a company called Elsag to purchase its first high tech surveillance device.

         -One (1) Automatic License Plate Reader was acquired for $20,100.

         -Updates, upgrades and maintenance proved to be too costly to the city to operate the unit when compared to what little benefit the ALPR provided to local law enforcement.

        -The project was scrapped and the city ended its relationship with Elsag after only a few years.

2016-Lexington installs 79 traffic cameras across the city. Many more were added later.

       -Initial cost of the project was $170,000.

       -Mayor Jim Gray originally pitched the project to citizens stating that the cameras would provide safety and efficiency to the public. “This system will put traffic information at your fingertips, available in the car and beyond. It will make traveling around town more convenient and safer.”

       -Last year, state legislators introduced legislation that would allow police to utilize these cameras to issue tickets for traffic violations. To date, no such measures have passed…yet.

2017-The Lexington Sheriff’s Department obtains and implements body-worn cameras for its officers.

        -The project was funded by a grant from The Bureau of Justice Assistance.

       -All footage from interactions with Sheriff’s Deputies is subject to open records requests—including footage of arrests and apprehensions. Yes, anyone can obtain footage of you being arrested and post it publicly.

2017-The Spypole.

Councilmember Fred Brown introduces a new pilot program to install a surveillance camera at Berry Hill Park. Different from traffic cameras, this was the first time a surveillance device was permanently fixed in a public location for the sole purpose of spying on citizens. 

         -The project cost $30,000 for one camera and was to be in effect for one year, at which time the Council would revisit the issue to determine the efficacy of the device.

        -No records can be found to verify that the Council ever reviewed the program after the initial one year trial period expired.

2017-The Super Secret Camera Revelation.

       -When the aforementioned Spypole was installed, former Director of We See You Watching Lexington, Mike Maharrey, noticed right away. As a resident of the neighborhood, Maharrey became both curious and concerned. 

      -Maharrey issued an open records request to the LFUCG asking for information regarding the camera, government policies relating to how surveillance is used in the city and specifics about any other surveillance technology currently in use. 

      -Maharrey received 460 pages of heavily redacted documents. Much of the information he requested was either obscured or not included. However, one portion of the documents referred to 29 “mobile surveillance cameras” employed by the Lexington Police Department.

      -LFUCG attempted to deny Maharrey‘s request based on “Homeland Security concerns.” Upon appeal, The Kentucky State Attorney General ruled in Maharrey‘s favor and ordered the City of Lexington to provide the requested information.

      -In response, the LFUCG sued Maharrey in order to keep their spying methods secret from the public.

      -Maharrey won the initial court case and the subsequent appeal by attorneys representing Lexington, however, the following appeal did not go as favorably. Maharrey was faced with a choice: go forward in hopes that the next court would swing back in his favor or risk possibly losing. Maharrey was counseled by his ACLU attorneys that such a loss would establish a dangerous precedent that could jeopardize other similar cases across the country. Maharrey elected to suspend his efforts.

      -However, Maharrey was holding back an ace card that the city was unaware of. The person who initially redacted the documents failed to use an adequate marking device to do so. While previously making copies of portions of the documents, Maharrey realized he could actually read a good deal of the blacked out material as light from the copier passed over the pages. By doing so, Maharrey realized that the secret Lexington so desperately wanted to protect was that the 29 mobile surveillance cameras could be camouflaged as concrete cinder blocks or fake utility boxes that could be attached to telephone poles. Some of the cameras could even be placed on streetlights across town.

      -With no further litigation pending, Maharrey decided to go public with the city’s secrets. City officials were far from happy.

2021-The Lexington Police Department signs an agreement with RING, Amazon’s Home Surveillance Equipment Company.

      -The agreement gives the LPD access to the company’s Neighbors App where they have access to posted videos, posts and comments. The app also allows the LPD to request assistance from the community with investigations in specific geographic locations where users can voluntarily share data and images from their RING device with police.

      -Since entering the agreement February of 2021, the LPD has made six such requests. It is unclear exactly how much participation they received or if such assistance aided in any investigations.

2021-Mayor Linda Gorton and the LFUCG Council enter into an agreement to obtain 25 Automatic License Plate Readers.

      –The agreement allows the LFUCG to participate in a one year test pilot program cost free.

      -Axon Enterprises will pay all costs associated with  the initial roll out and installation while Flock Safety will provide their proprietary hardware, software and support services. In return, the two companies, in partnership with the National Police Foundation, will get to use compiled data from the surveillance of Lexington motorists in a national study on the impacts of Automatic License Plate Readers on crime.

      -The estimated cost of the equipment to be utilized is $70,000.

      The surveillance devices will be deployed in early 2022.

      -The LPD will have access to data and images for 30 days, but can permanently save and retain data to its servers if associated with criminal investigations.

       -The contract allows Flock Safety to share data and images with second and third parties.

And that is where Lexington is to date.

It is critical to note that Lexington implemented and deployed all of its surveillance through the years without any public policies to insure accountability and transparency regarding how each type of device can be used, how data is to be shared and the like. Rarely was the community asked for comment as to whether we actually wanted these devices used in our hometown.

Reviewing this timeline, it becomes evident that each evolutionary stage becomes more technologically advanced and more and more invasive. As technology improves, the costs to acquire these devices becomes more affordable and their capabilities more intrusive. In 2007, one ALPR unit cost $20,100. In 2021, twenty-five ALPRs could be obtained for $70,000. 

Each addition of any high tech surveillance devices makes our community more susceptible to warrantless searches and privacy encroachments, as the hardware and software used is now all linked and interconnected in a vast and sprawling network of institutional and governmental data collection and information sharing.

The LFUCG Council often sites public safety as the primary reason for enhanced surveillance. One must always remember that cameras, license plate readers, stingray devices and the like cannot make arrests, cannot accurately predict where crime will happen nor prevent crime from happening. How much additional safety do these devices actually provide? On the flip side, is a total loss of privacy a fair trade off for a mere perception of safety? These are among the many questions Lexingtonians should be asking now, before our city leaders pull our community irreversibly into a state of mass surveillance.

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