Updated with comments from the ACLU press conference, additional information on cameras, and additional comments from the city.
A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri finds the city of St. Louis is doing a poor job preserving the privacy rights of residents and visitors as it expands its network of surveillance cameras.
"This country was founded on the very important principle that the right of the citizens to be free from government interference is paramount," said Jeffrey Mittman, the ACLU's executive director. "What's happening is that without our noticing it, that right is disappearing."
The city, Mittman said, has been building a network of cameras that can monitor and track a citizen almost in real time.
The report is the result of two years of work by John Chasnoff, a former ACLU employee. It "uncovered a variety of civil liberties concerns," including confusion about how many cameras there are and who monitors them, as well as lax policies around who can access the footage and how it can be used.
Between various city agencies, aldermanic wards, community improvement and special business districts, the reports says there are about 210 video surveillance cameras throughout the city, mostly concentrated along the central corridor. There are an additional 120 still cameras that monitor alleyways for illegal dumping as part of a task trash force.
"The cameras that we have now are not the little Brownies that we all grew up with," Mittman said. "The cameras they are using now have the capability to zoom in on a face, to zoom in on a license plate."
An Expanding Network
The ACLU report voiced alarm at the rapid integration of the various camera systems.
"Unification of surveillance systems opens the door for an increase in the government’s invasion of privacy. Overlapping cameras would create the ability to follow one person throughout his/her travels around the city. Economies of scale would make it easier to install more sophisticated programs, such as facial recognition. And anyone who did gain access to the system (including hackers and other non-authorized persons, as well as rogue law enforcement agents abusing their authority) would have a more powerful and comprehensive tool at his or her disposal."
So far, the report said, systems operated by Downtown STL Inc. (formerly the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis) and the Locust Business District have been combined with traffic cameras and those operated by the Port Authority of St. Louis. A group calling itself the Central Corridor Security Initiative is spearheading a larger plan that would network 150 cameras. Also, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is seeking funding to build a real-time intelligence center that would combine not only cameras but other surveillance tools like the ShotSpotter and license plate readers.
Missy Kelley, the chief operating officer for Downtown STL Inc., confirmed that the organization monitors about 100 cameras from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday. She said specially-trained downtown guides watch the feeds from a command post below Soldier's Memorial, and are told to call 911 if they spot something suspicious.
"It's a very helpful tool," Kelley said, adding that the organization is also aware of more than 750 privately-owned cameras that are angled at public streets. The ACLU report did not look at private cameras, except to say that if a company chooses to link the cameras into any existing or future government network, they should be subject to the same restrictions.
At least three aldermen have installed cameras in their wards. Ald. Christine Ingrassia, of the 6th Ward, said she spent some of her ward's capital money on four cameras, which will be mounted in Fox Park. Two of them will have pan-tilt-zoom capability, and all will be linked into the existing network at Soldier's Memorial.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department will be training a select group of neighborhood volunteers to monitor the cameras, Ingrassia said, although the amount of monitoring will be up to the neighborhood. The intent is to give the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department an added set of eyes if someone calls 911, rather than 24/7 surveillance, she said.
The ACLU is calling for the city to abandon its plan for the real-time intelligence center and halt the installation of additional cameras until appropriate privacy regulations are developed. It also wants the conversation about surveillance moved into the public realm.
"We wish that there were not these cameras in place," said Mittman, the executive director. "As they are here, let’s make sure that every year, we have an audit that is available to the public that reviews the efficacy, the cost and what implications and infringements on privacy and personal civil liberties there have been."
But it appears the city won't be following those recommendations. Jeff Rainford, the chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay, said the administration will be looking to increase the number of cameras, as well as link them to a central network for continuous monitoring.
Slay is willing to work with the ACLU on common sense rules to govern the use of the cameras, Rainford said. But its voice cannot be the only one the city listens to.
"The real interest that we're interested in hearing from and serving are the 320,000 people who live in the city," Rainford said. "And they're telling us that they want to address crime, they want everybody in the city no matter where they live, to feel safe in their homes."
Rainford said the city will deploy the additional cameras as money becomes available. They are also looking for ways to fund the construction of the real-time intelligence center.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann