Main item on the agenda that night: The “Domain Awareness Center” (DAC) — a federally funded project that, if built as planned, would link up real time audio and video feeds from thousands of sensors across the city — including CCTV cameras in public schools and public housing projects, as well as Oakland Police Department mobile license plate scanners — into one high-tech control hub, where analysts could pipe the data through face recognition software, surveil the city by location and enrich its intelligence with data coming in from local, state and federal government and law enforcement agencies.We've all heard the common knee-jerk defense of the culture of putting cameras in everything. "I've got nothing to hide!" Except that's not exactly true. Or at least, it's something people say when they don't understand what's actually being watched.
During the meeting, city officials argued that the DAC would help police deal with Oakland’s violent crime and invoked 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina, saying that a streamlined intelligence system would help protect residents in the event of natural disaster or terrorist attack.
The former head of security for a Fortune 500 company I spoke to scoffed at the notion that surveillance provided deterrence. “Cameras don’t prevent shit,” he said. “Nobody gets them except as a reaction to something that’s already happened, and I’ve never heard of someone stopping a crime because they saw it happening live on camera. The only use for security cameras is to punish someone after the fact.”
Had cameras proved useful to his former employer? “The only time we’d get asked for footage was when the big dogs needed an excuse to fire someone for cause. They’d say, pull the tapes of so-and-so arriving in the morning the last six months. They’d comb through, and if the guy was late three times in a certain period, that gave them an excuse to fire him without having to pay. And with around-the-clock video of everyone, with everyone’s computer records being available, anyone was fireable. Surveillance cameras just provided what was needed; nobody could withstand that kind of scrutiny.”
That’s my feeling about the moment-to-moment hyper-accountability of mass surveillance: it provides those given access to the footage—or e-mail metadata, or browser histories—the means to selectively discredit or indict anyone, at any time.
That AG article is a month old now but there's a lot there to think about. In New Orleans, the camera system isn't run by the police or any city department. Instead it is wholly owned by private enterprise, ProjectNOLA. The company's founder, Bryan Lagarde has been treated mostly as a hero by the local press. I've always wondered why that is.
Anyway, Bentley's article also suggests deleterious effects perpetual surveillance in New Orleans can have.
If, as a prominent post-K hagiographer has said, New Orleans is a city of moments, what happens when an apparatus of documentation sprouts around those moments? Video-recorded, the idealized, ephemeral moment becomes something permanent and concrete, a visual commodity that can be bought, sold, passed around, duplicated and used as evidence by anyone with access to it.
When we know or think we’re being watched, we behave differently.
A couple of years ago author Dan Savage addressed the American Library Association convention in New Orleans. I've know I've mentioned his comments before but I think they're important so here they are again. Savage talked about the importance of being allowed to "read surreptitiously."
Savage playfully pandered, saying, “I’m a print guy, and I think books are magic.” But he added a very real and sobering message: not all kids can risk getting caught with an incriminating browser history, nor do many kids have access to YouTube at school.But, according to Google, allowing people too much freedom to move about, associate, or even read unobserved is how you get 9/11s and Katrinas. Oh well.
The book is for them, Savage said, and challenged school librarians to put it on the shelves where kids in need might find it and “read it surreptitiously, if that’s what they need to do at that point in their lives.”
Here again, Savage linked the subversive quality of his YouTube and book project to the knowledge dissemination mission of libraries. It puts LGBT adults in touch-if indirectly-with the LGBT youth who need to hear their messages.