Why Should We Trust Lexington With Surveillance Technology?

How dare the Lexington Police Department ask us to trust them with automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) or any other surveillance gear, for that matter!

Police Chief Lawrence Weathers can’t even be honest about the methods his department uses to spy on people for official investigatory purposes. At a recent press conference held by the LPD to reassure the community about transparency relating to the deployment of ALPRs, Chief Weathers stood at a podium in front of journalists and a live viewing audience and lied about his department’s secret surveillance cameras—a program that they fought a lengthy court battle to hide from public awareness.

Reporter:  Just so people are aware, there are mobile surveillance cameras already in place.”

Weathers: “Like?”

Reporter: “In 2017, there were reported to be 29 mobile surveillance cameras across the city. Are there still 29?”

Weathers: “I’m not aware of any operated by the police like that.”

Chief Weathers’ denial was anything but transparent.

In 2017 Mike Maharrey, former Director of We See You Watching Lexington, a local government surveillance watchdog organization, filed an open records request with The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) asking for information on government policies relating to how surveillance is used in the city and specifics about any 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. While previously making copies of portions of the documents, Maharrey realized he could read some of the redacted material.

Maharrey realized that the secret Lexington so desperately wanted to protect was that among the 29 mobile surveillance cameras one could be camouflaged as a fake utility box. Another could be hidden in street lights. The LPD also owns “dome cameras.” It remains unclear where these were/are deployed.

The LFUCG sued Maharrey in order to keep their spying methods secret from the public, however, as the lengthy court battle concluded, Maharrey publicly disclosed what he had discovered.

Is the LPD operating these cameras under a non-disclosure agreement with the company they acquired them from? Has Chief Weathers been advised by legal counsel to not discuss how these spying devices are being used? If so, admitting that would be far more transparent than an outright denial of their existence and implementation.

During the press conference, Chief Weathers was adamant that Lexington’s new license plate readers would be utilized in high crime areas. The ACLU and many local activism organizations have voiced concern that ALPRs would predominantly be placed in areas densely populated with minorities or low-income citizens. To further diminish the community’s faith in the LPD’s transparency, both Police Chief Weathers and Assistant Chief Eric Lowe were evasive when asked what areas of Lexington were shown, through data, to be considered high crime areas. Weathers and Lowe avoided answering or identifying those parts of town where license plate readers are to be deployed.

Additionally, top police officials were deceptive about how data is stored and with whom it is shared. When asked if there are provisions about metadata from the ALPRs being used by Flock Safety, the company contracting with Lexington to supply the devices, Assistant Chief Lowe said, “They (Flock Safety) do not have direct access to go and compile our data and use it for their purposes. That’s our data.”

However, earlier in the press conference, Lieutenant Matthew Greathouse acknowledged that Flock Safety “actually takes care of storage management.”

A key provision of the agreement, signed by Mayor Linda Gorton on Dec. 8, 2021, allows the LFUCG to participate in this program cost-free for the initial one-year trial period. Per the agreement, Axon Enterprises will pay all costs associated with the initial rollout 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.

With regard to who citizens’ data is shared with, Chief Weathers acknowledged that other agencies will have access to everything these cameras capture and retain, stating that the surveillance system is tied together nationally.

Though the LPD wants the community to focus on their local policy of 30-day data retention, they have failed to advise the public that the other “agencies” that will have access to these cameras include local police departments across the country, the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Defense, The TSA, The Secret Service, The Department of Transportation and many, many more that all have varying policies regarding how they retain and share your data. In some instances, there are virtually no policies in place, at all, regarding data privacy. To make data more readily available to these agencies, it is likely the data and images collected by Lexington’s license plate readers will all be snatched up and dumped into government Fusion Centers.

Fusion Centers are a part of the Information Sharing Environment that developed as a result of the September 11th attacks and serve as hubs for numerous government agencies to have fast, equitable access to data collected on virtually everyone across the country and the world. With the global war on terror swiftly losing favor, this Information Sharing Environment (ISE) once intended to fend off threats from abroad is now being turned inward to wage the government’s recent campaign against its own citizens under the guise of combating domestic terrorism.

As it turns out, Assistant Chief Lowe was not completely forthcoming. There are a great many people who have access to OUR data and can compile it to use for any number of sordid purposes.

THE CITY COUNCIL LACKS ACCOUNTABILITY AND INSIGHT

In 2017, The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) voted to adopt a first-of-a-kind pilot program to install a four-camera surveillance system in Berry Hill Park, located in the Buckhorn neighborhood. Differing from traffic cameras, this was the first time fixed cameras had been openly installed in a public area for the specific purpose of watching citizens. The program, sponsored and introduced by Councilmember “Spypole” Fred Brown, cost taxpayers $30,000, was implemented with no community input or discussion and was to be in place for a year.

At the end of the one-year trial period, the LFUCG Council was to revisit the pilot program to discern whether the surveillance investment was beneficial to the community. There is no evidence in the backlog of LFUCG meetings that any such revisitation of the program ever occurred. Five years later, the camera array is still operational. When the LFUCG makes promises to follow up on programs they implement and then fail to deliver, institutional accountability begins to be questioned and diminished by the community.

With Lexington’s most recent addition of ALPRs to its ever-growing menagerie of surveillance technology, The LFUCG voted unanimously to participate in the pilot program proposed and funded by Axon Enterprises and Flock Safety, however, the vote on the proposal was bundled together with more than a dozen other resolutions.

Whether it be local, state, or federal, when legislation and governance are bundled, it makes it difficult for any elected representative to oppose portions of the bundle on a line-by-line basis without sacrificing something else that might be important to the lawmaker or his/her constituents. Bundling also provides a veil of secrecy for elected officials to hide behind, as votes can often be taken without those officials actually going on record about whether they truly are for or against specific pieces of legislation.

That appears to be exactly what the Council did in this instance.

Additionally, the LFUCG Council went forward with this program without any plan in place for accountability or transparency for the implementation and use of these devices. As discovered by a previous investigation and open records request by local surveillance watchdog group We See You Watching Lexington, no such ordinance exists with regard to the use of high-tech surveillance in Lexington. The LPD did not even publicly come forth with a departmental policy until after some of the License Plate Readers were online and operational.

No public comments were obtained by the Council to get a feel for overall community opinion prior to voting to approve this measure.

When a Lexington Police Department representative presented the plan to the Council on Nov. 30, 2021, he said it was “time-sensitive.” He said they wanted to get the agreement in place and then the LPD would go before the Public Safety Committee in early 2022 to “present both the project plan and the policy.”

So, it was literally a “you’ll see what’s in the plan after you pass it” scenario.

As far as insight goes, the LFUCG Council goes out of its way to hear presentations from police, public safety experts and security conglomerate pitchmen whenever they consider introducing new spy tech into our community, but never seem to call upon experts knowledgeable about how living in a surveillance state affects a community. They never seem to want to hear from local activists who represent our minority and low-income communities. They are oblivious to how interconnected surveillance technology is and how each addition makes our data more and more available to government agencies outside of local influence or control. It would be shocking if even one Councilmember knew what a Fusion Center even was.

THE MAYOR FORESHADOWED A LACK OF COMMITMENT TO COMPLETE TRANSPARENCY

In 2018, Linda Gorton was running for the office of Mayor. Coincidentally, the race was taking place at the same time the city government was suing Mike Maharrey for asking too many questions about Lexington’s use of surveillance technology. The case got measurable local and national attention and Maharrey’s grassroots organization, We See You Watching Lexington, successfully endeavored to make the subject of surveillance an issue in the mayoral race.

During a debate hosted by WVLK pitting Gorton against challenger Ronnie Bastin, the moderator asked surveillance-related questions to each candidate. Gorton indicated then that she did not support complete transparency when it comes to surveillance when she responded, “So, we are going to need to have a balance and as far as, you know, putting out into public the whole detail of the plan, that may not necessarily be a smart thing to do, but we need to be somewhat transparent.”

In reality, Lexington needs a policy of complete transparency and robust oversight when it comes to surveillance technology. And we need to have that policy in place before the city acquires even more sophisticated spy gear. Concerned citizens should not have to waste time and resources cutting through Mayor Gorton’s ‘somewhat transparency’ whenever they want to know what their government is up to. We had ‘somewhat transparency’ under Mayor Jim Gray and that did not work out well for the average Lexingtonian.

During the race, We See You Watching Lexington reached out to candidate Gorton with questions about her position on surveillance use. Linda Gorton’s campaign never directly responded to those questions. However, in a Facebook message to the organization, Gorton talked about the need for “balance” when it comes to privacy and the needs of law enforcement. She commented on the importance of community input before more cameras were installed in Lexington, stating that “This requires a bigger conversation.” Interestingly, Gorton also said, “I don’t believe our community needs cameras in every public place like some bigger cities or some countries that surveil their people everywhere.”

Four years later, without having any semblance of a bigger community conversation whatsoever, Gorton signed a contract that introduced 25 highly sophisticated cameras that will capture the license plates and any data attached of every citizen that drives past one. Within weeks of that so-called one-year pilot program being implemented, Gorton submitted her budget proposal for the fiscal year 2022-2023, allocating an additional $275,000 for an additional 75 License Plate Readers. Totaling 100 units, Gorton not only just signaled that these devices are here to stay, she literally just put “cameras in every public place like some bigger cities or some countries that surveil their people everywhere.”

ARE YOU STUCK IN AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH SPY-TECH AND CAN’T TRUST YOUR LOCAL GOVERNMENT? HELP MAY BE JUST AROUND THE CORNER.

There really is no question about it. The surveillance state is here to stay in Lexington. Our city has fallen into the dangerous but predictable pattern that so many modern cities across the globe have done before. Once the first high-tech surveillance system is introduced into a community, more and more devices swiftly get acquired and deployed. It comes in waves and as each generation of new technology becomes more advanced, each wave becomes more sophisticated and more invasive.

Mayor Gorton and Police Chief Weathers have accomplished moving the surveillance dial in the wrong direction in an alarmingly short period of time. Having added license plate readers and unmanned aerial drones to the growing menagerie of high-tech surveillance now deployed by the LPD, Lexington now lives under a microscope of fixed cameras, body-worn cameras, traffic cameras, plate reading cameras, aerial drone cameras, the Amazon Ring Doorbell program that allows police to use your doorbell as a camera and a super-secret camouflaged police camera program that the LPD refuses to acknowledge even exists. This toothpaste is not going back into the tube.

If we are to continue to live as citizens of this community we love so much and must coexist with these privacy-invading devices, then we owe it to ourselves, our neighbors and future generations to demand a local ordinance from the LFUCG Council that will provide transparency and accountability for surveillance use in Lexington and privacy protection for its citizens. We See You Watching Lexington has provided the LFUCG Council a draft of an ordinance that would take the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into a broader national surveillance state. To date, the City Council has ignored our guidance, but the recent deployment of License Plate Cameras has caused concern to members of the community. Momentum is once again building for surveillance accountability.

Your support and participation in this endeavor are needed now more than ever before. Click the ordinance link to review our recommendations and contact your Councilmember if you support the preservation of privacy rights in Lexington.

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