Pennsylvania Prosecutor Built A Surveillance Network Using Forfeiture Funds And Compromised Chinese Cameras
from the who-says-the-system-doesn't-work dept
A new report from Mike Wereschagin for The Caucus details the disturbing surveillance network that’s been set up around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania using a fortuitous combination of forfeiture funds and zero oversight. The camera network utilizes cameras made by blacklisted Chinese firms and appears to have no statutes or guidelines governing its use.
The entity behind this surveillance network isn’t one of the law enforcement agencies that patrol the area. Instead, this is the work of a local prosecutor who seems willing to ignore anything that resembles best practices for government surveillance.
The district attorney for Pennsylvania’s second-most-populous county has assembled a network of advanced surveillance cameras in and around Pittsburgh and has enlisted colleagues in four surrounding counties to extend its reach into their jurisdictions.
Unlike other law enforcement agencies that have deployed this technology, though, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. outsourced its monitoring to a private company, gave other police departments access to it with no written restrictions on how they can use it and purchased Chinese-made cameras that are so vulnerable to domestic and foreign hacking that the Department of Defense considers them a national security threat.
The cameras purchased by the DA’s office come from two Chinese manufacturers that have been blacklisted by the federal government because of their security flaws. Dahua Technology Co. and Hangzhou Digital Technology Co. provided the cameras used in Pittsburgh. As of August 13, federal installations are no longer allowed to purchase from these companies or utilize any already-purchased equipment. The cameras in use around Pittsburgh don’t belong to any federal agency, but that doesn’t eliminate the security threats posed by their ongoing use.
The DA’s spokesperson, Mike Manko, says the Chinese cameras that phone home aren’t a problem because, well, only random Pittsburgh residents (and their vehicles) are affected.
Hacking is “not a significant concern,” Manko wrote.
“We do have security protocols that would let us know of an intrusion, and other than being able to see the feeds of the cameras, the access to any type of information is extremely limited,” Manko wrote.
Yep. No big deal. Just foreign operatives watching US citizens via cameras these operatives sold to a US government agency. Hangzhou, the other camera provider for the DA’s camera network, is a subsidiary of China’s state-run China Electronics Technology Group.
The cameras already utilize license plate reader tech. The documents obtained via public records requests show these images are retained for up to six months. The DA’s office claims there’s been no breach of this system via its insecure cameras, but the hands-off approach the DA has taken to regulating use doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the office’s attention to detail.
Manko said access to the network is “limited, protected and subject to audit.” It’s unclear under what conditions, though. The Caucus requested copies of agreements governing the use of the cameras and, in response, Zappala’s office said none existed.
And, as if it wasn’t enough that the DA’s office doesn’t appear to care that Chinese operatives might be helping themselves to camera feeds, the DA’s office thinks adding facial recognition tech to the mix is the next step forward, starting with the possibly-compromised cameras already installed in local schools.
“Down the road is facial recognition,” Dick Skrinjar, a project manager in Zappala’s office, told the Downtown Clean + Safe Community Forum in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District in February.
“Any idea how many kids in public schools are on probation?” Skrinjar asked.
Two thousand, he told them.
“We have their pictures,” Skrinjar said. “We can put them in the system and restrict where these people go, and keep them out of areas they’re not supposed to be in.”
Well, I guess if you’re going to emulate Chinese-style surveillance tactics, it makes sense to use Chinese cameras. The DA’s spokesperson agreed that discussions with school administrators about facial recognition tech have taken place but nothing is in place at the moment. But it definitely sounds like when this tech is inevitably rolled out, it will be in schools first. According to the spokesperson, “no other use of facial recognition has been pursued.”
Pittsburgh students are going to be the DA’s lab rats for facial recognition tech. Keep that in mind once the statements about solving serious crimes or capturing dangerous criminals are made in defense of facial recognition rollouts by the DA or local law enforcement. Also keep in mind that asset forfeiture makes this sort of thing possible, giving the DA’s office money it can spend without having to run its plans past anyone else in the local government. This makes cobbling together a problematic surveillance system like the one in use here that much easier.