from the bay-area-big-brother dept
With almost zero public notice, the Board of Supervisors of Marin County, California (just to the north of San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge) is on the verge of approving tomorrow a demand by the county sheriff’s department to install license plate cameras throughout the county. As a county resident, I object. My comment submitted to the board is below.
Dear Marin County Supervisors:
In the last 30 days I have entered the Gateway Shopping Center in Marin City on at least 11/6, 11/21, and 11/24 to get groceries, dine, and purchase other household goods.
None of this information is your business, and it is certainly not the business of the Marin County Sheriff’s Department. But if you authorize their proposal to allow automatic license plate reader cameras to be installed throughout Marin County this location information is exactly the sort they will be able to know about each and every person driving in Marin County, be they residents or their guests.
I have also gone to Strawberry on at least 10/31, 11/7, 11/8, 11/10, 11/15, 11/16, and 11/21, to go grocery shopping, dine, and seek medical care.
As a resident in unincorporated Marin, these places are in my neighborhood and where I need to go to shop, dine, and do the business life requires. It is also the activity businesses in Marin depend on people doing. But if you let the Marin County Sheriff Department hang these cameras, it will be impossible to go to any of these places without them knowing.
I have also regularly driven on Highway 1 to enter Mill Valley. I do not have complete records of these travels, but if you let the Sheriff’s Department hang the cameras where they propose, they will.
And it is not just residents of unincorporated Marin who will have the details of their personal life documented by the police; it will be every single person with any reason to be here in the county, including every lawful one. The proposal preys on fear, such as with the included “crime heat map.” But it is a “heat map” that happens to directly correlate to where people live and conduct business in the county and thus happens to reflect where most activity occurs, including lawful activity, which would all be caught by this camera dragnet too.
The sheriff further proposes to hang cameras on Sir Francis Drake, a major artery through Marin County, providing access to much of central Marin, including countless medical establishments in Greenbrae itself. Do you wish to also know about when I’ve visited doctors there? Soon the sheriff will be able to tell you.
None of this information is something the police are entitled to know. The privacy the United States Constitution affords to be secure in our papers and effects restricts this sort of incursion into the public’s private lives without probable cause that a crime has already been committed so that people can be free to go about their lives, unchilled by the prospect of agents of the state knowing their business without any justification. The sheriff’s department alleges in its paperwork that county counsel has reviewed the proposal, but nothing submitted reflects any coherent practical or legal argument that it is constitutionally appropriate or possible for you to allow the sheriff’s department to invade every resident’s privacy as they so propose. In fact, all of the paperwork submitted is entirely self-serving and supplied by the very government agency that seeks to have this additional power over civilian lives. Nothing more neutral or independent has been provided to the board by any other state or county agency, nor any other civil society organization, who could provide you with the information you need to recognize the immense cost of the proposal in forms other than purely financial.
Granted, I may have little to fear from the cameras the sheriff wants to install in the Oak Manor neighborhood, as I’m rarely there. But the people living in the neighborhood surely go out and about, so soon you will have information about their comings and goings.
However, the sheriff also proposes to have these cameras on the streets approaching the Marin County Civic Center, surrounding the heart of local county government with a moat of surveillance, which means that the sheriff will be able to track every single person who approaches the building for any reason, including to attend public hearings (such as this one), to petition their local government for any reason a resident might need to seek assistance from their local government, or to register to vote. Personally I think it has been more than 30 days since my last visit to this famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building (which also contains a public library), but when I make my next visit, the sheriff will know.
The sheriff proposal says it is to help it police against property crime. And no one likes crime. But crime is not the only harm the public can experience. The cameras themselves pose their own, and it is incumbent on this board to recognize how damaging the oversight police are demanding to have over our lives itself is. The reason people worry about equity impact is that there is a very real harm done to the public when they cannot live lives free from police scrutiny. But that effect reaches everyone in the public, not just those the police have a known habit of unduly targeting. With these ubiquitous cameras, every single person in Marin County will have the details of their lives available for the police to scrutinize. No pallor can protect anyone from the harm that can follow to have their lives recorded in police-controlled ledgers because it is that recording itself that is a harm now everyone must incur.
It will be incurred by everyone traveling to central and western Marin on Lucas Valley Road. I last was there more than 30 days ago, on October 22, but the next time I try to attend a concert in Nicasio (or go biking, or go buy cheese) you will have record of it.
And for no good reason. The deterrence effect of these cameras the police tout is overstated. License plate cameras do not magically prevent crime. Crime still happens. Sometimes serious crimes. But instead of looking at how ineffective cameras are, the lesson we’ve learned from the local towns that have already inflicted cameras on us is that their inherent inability to prevent crime tends to just lead to calls for more cameras, because the police’s appetite to know the details of people’s lives is insatiable. They won’t stop here, asking for just these cameras. When crime inevitably happens they will want more: more cameras, in more places, and maybe even other tools that will help them know more about the private details of the lives of the people in this county. After all, if one invests in the fallacy that these cameras will help anything, then there is no limiting principle to think that more such tools won’t similarly be warranted, until there is no place anywhere in Marin where people can go about their lives without being watched by the government.
At least I won’t personally have to worry much about the cameras proposed for the Atherton area near Highway 37, because now that I’ve relocated to southern Marin I’m seldom there. But I used to be there often, and if you’d had the cameras hung then, you’d know.
Because there’s no assurance by any of the hand-waving phrases contained within the proposal to convince you that there are no real concerns raised. For instance, it uses words like, “encryption,” which is indeed important, but also not itself a magic solution for every problem, and which is also useless as a defense for the interests of the public when the police still have the key to all the data. The proposal also includes language saying that the sheriff will own the data, as if that provides any sort of assurance for the public when it is their data that the police want to own. Don’t be fooled by the platitudes; instead recognize them as the smoke and mirrors being deployed to distract from the serious issues license plate cameras raise (and the profit motive of the vendor, who has no reason to care as long as they are paid).
We all will feel the effects, even for cameras hung in places where we visit less frequently. We are still a community, and people come to us as much as we go to them. For instance, I still have friends in the Novato area, and I’m sure you’d be interested to know that I visited one in the Indian Valley area where you plan to have cameras on 11/11, as well as 10/28.
This board should stand up for the rights of its constituents and vote to reject the sheriff’s proposal to install cameras anywhere in the county. But at minimum it should delay any action until there can be greater public input with ample notice. This proposal has been treated like a ministerial budgetary item few in the county would care about evaluating. Indeed the fiscal impact may be relatively minor, although if the sheriff’s department really believes it has money to burn on cameras perhaps that money could be reclaimed for the general budget and better spent on, say, a guidance counselor or other public resources that might actually deter criminality.
But its overall impact is enormous, affecting the lives of every single person in the county. Thus requires everyone to be able to carefully scrutinize what this board plans to do to them if it were to approve the proposal. Yet we can’t; this proposal is getting slipped past us without any meaningful effort to call attention to it commensurate with its impact. The “staff report” item in the agenda, which was written not by county staff but by the sheriff’s department, is itself is dated as of tomorrow, which calls into question whether approval could even be compliance with SB 34 requiring the agency to provide adequate notice to the public before installing these cameras, since the report itself does not even legally exist until the day it appears on the agenda and after the deadline for written comments at 3:30pm on November 27.
The county is certainly capable of providing more conspicuous notice, like as it does every time it wants the public to vote on one of its propositions. And for something this serious, similar advertising efforts are warranted. After all, if this board is inclined to allow the police so much oversight of our lives, then it should do everything possible to ensure that the public is able to provide meaningful oversight of its choices so that we can hold those who make them accountable.
I urge you to vote no on the proposal.
Filed Under: alpr, license plate cameras, license plates, marin, marin county, surveillance