Ventura’s domestic surveillance programs grow as the NSA comes under scrutiny
By Chris O'Neal 10/17/2013
Noon at the Ventura pier, tourists and residents stroll casually to the end and back hoping to catch a glimpse of a dolphin or two. Aaron Dixon brought his mother and his camera along to photograph the scenery. Dixon, a visual effects artist, stops briefly to answer a simple question.
“Are you aware that you’re being watched?”
“Probably,” replied Dixon.
Dixon, like everyone else on the pier that day, had been caught on camera. Several points around Ventura are under constant surveillance: at Harbor and California, a camera has a 365 degree visual on both the promenade and the railroad crossing over the 101. Behind City Hall, where the Ventura Botanical Gardens trail reaches up to the top of the hill, a camera can zoom in to such a degree that it can read signs on Ventura Avenue below.
In the name of security, the Ventura Police Department has access to practically every camera on public property in Ventura and is hoping for those numbers to grow, eventually incorporating privately owned devices.
In 2010, the department received a grant from the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, in the amount of $150,000. Of that, the department used $73,000 to purchase software from VidSys, a developer based in Virginia. That software was the Physical Security Information Management (PSIM) system, which allows the department to control live feeds from cameras across the city, including those located within area high schools.
A total of $148,333 of the grant was spent on the system including servers, equipment and wireless devices, according to department Business Services Officer Roger Wang.
Ventura police have been busy securing these networks. In fact, Ventura has become the frontrunner of domestic surveillance in the state and is the first city in California to gain access to cameras located within area high schools. (Los Angeles has a similar program, but the school district has its own distinct police force.)
At the police dispatch center, Cpl. Tony Snow sits at a desk with four separate monitors, each with a different purpose. Snow is responsible for monitoring incoming emergency calls and has access to more than several dozen cameras located throughout the city, including close to 30 individual cameras, each located within Buena and Ventura High Schools and Anacapa, Cabrillo and Balboa Middle Schools.
“If we take this camera and pull it over here,” said Snow as he demonstrated the use of an individual camera on one of the two main monitors, “we can see onto Harbor Boulevard. If there’s an emergency, we can zoom in for more detail.”
Photo by: Michael Sullivan
This surveillance camera overlooking the pier is among dozens
installed by Ventura Police Department throughout the city.
On the wall adjacent to Snow’s desk are two flat-screen monitors, each displaying four rectangular feeds from cameras around the city. On the right, a pull-down menu lists individual feeds: six schools; an area labeled “City Hall,” which encompasses everywhere around Ventura Avenue and east toward the police headquarters; and the Pacific View Mall. Each category drops down to reveal individual cameras available from those locations.
Snow went on to demonstrate live views from within Buena High School, specifically overlooking a courtyard and a basketball court. Four students with backpacks sat around a concrete table while another rode his bicycle in circles.
While the Ventura Police Department is looking out for local interests, nationally, domestic surveillance has come under intense scrutiny.
Over the past several months, revelations regarding national spying programs have opened a dialogue over privacy rights within the U.S. and have had the effect of causing citizens to question the intentions of both national and local law enforcement. After Edward Snowden illegally leaked information about NSA’s domestic and international spying programs, Congress attempted to put a stop to domestic data collection but failed. Almost immediately after, more secret spying activities were uncovered.
The ACLU, via a freedom of information request, acquired details regarding “suspicious activity reports” on individuals seen as acting suspicious. Collecting water, taking photographs of bridges and being unfriendly put several individuals on a NSA watch list that required follow-up by law enforcement.
“It sounds like something out of a bad sci-fi movie,” said Dana McLorn, media relations coordinator for the Ventura Libertarian Party. “We wouldn’t be opposed to having private entities having surveillance on their own property, but having it on public property and networking them to a central location is somewhat disturbing.”
McLorn brought the issue up at a recent Libertarian meeting.
“It’s really pretty clear that our party is dead-set against increasing the surveillance state,” said McLorn. “Edward Snowden is kind of a huge folk hero for the party at this time. It’s definitely coming across ideological lines; he’s basically turning a light on something they said they weren’t doing and now we know they’re doing it. It’s bipartisan spying at this point.”
All of the cameras accessed by the Ventura Police Department are on public land, with the exception of the Pacific View Mall, which cooperates with the department for crime prevention. If the department has its way, however, private businesses and homes could soon be part of the network.
“We are exploring private entities allowing us access to their systems,” said Cpl. Snow, “and the system that we have in place is capable of doing that.”
Misuse of powerful spying systems at the national level has caused a downturn in public trust of authorities with these capabilities.
Recently, employees of the NSA were revealed to have used their capabilities to spy on loved ones at least a dozen times over the past year, a practice that garnered its own nick name, LOVEINT, or love intelligence. Most employees caught up in the offense were allowed to retire quietly or were reprimanded, but none has been prosecuted.
Assistant Police Chief Dave Wilson said the Ventura program began with the railroad trestle over the freeway, where graffiti had once marred the landmark. It is illegal for a person to cross onto the trestle, and several suspects have been dissuaded from illegal activities, thanks in part to the cameras.
“We had an incident once where a member of our department looking at the camera near the trestle saw a couple people hiding something, so we sent officers and it turned out they were using drugs and hiding their paraphernalia,” said Wilson.
On private property, the department is limited in what can be seen. If, for instance, an illegal activity is happening on a resident’s porch, the department cannot use a camera to spy on the offenders. On public property, that limitation is gone.
“If you trip and fall in a public parking lot, everyone is going to bring out their cell phones and record you on the ground,” said Wilson. “I think it’s just a natural part of how cameras are used. Everyone uses them differently.”
According to Wilson, the department stores footage caught on public surveillance cameras for a short period of time, but none of it is stored permanently.
The NSA, on the other hand, hasn’t been as transparent with its activities or motivations.
Along with surveillance cameras, emails and phone conversations are monitored routinely by the NSA, and instances of government-ordered surveillance have increased dramatically since Sept.11, 2001, specifically after the passage of the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act.
In 2008, after passage of the FISA Amendments Act, the attorney general and director of national intelligence were given sweeping powers to enact surveillance on targets at their discretion. Prior to the act, any surveillance conducted required a warrant; now, the NSA can eavesdrop on foreign or domestic calls without divulging the method, place or length of the surveillance.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara and Ventura, was the only representative serving the Ventura area to have voted for the stoppage of the NSA domestic spying program. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, voted to keep the act in place.
“This right of privacy must be protected, but also balanced with our need for national security programs that keep our nation safe,” said Capps via email. “We must continue to talk about these programs and how they work and provide strong oversight to ensure that individual’s privacy rights and civil liberties are being protected.”
Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., introduced the bill to halt the NSA program and has recently introduced a bill that would repeal the Patriot Act in its entirety as well as strip the FISA Amendments Act of its most controversial parts. Capps is undecided on the legislation.
While the Ventura Police Department isn’t saving footage, the cameras can be set to sound an alarm when a person enters a specific area, such as the backdoor to the headquarters or to a restricted zone like the area across the Ventura trestle.
Photo by: T. Christian Gapen
Ventura Police Department dispatch center
where several areas of the city including many schools
are being watched through surveillance cameras.
Eventually, the department will roll out a plan to allow private businesses and individuals to offer access to their security systems for use in the department’s PSIM system. Individuals would sign waivers giving access to the police and in return, in the event of an emergency, Snow or one of his colleagues could pull up the camera from within the business or home.
Wilson recalled a recent event at Buena High School during which the surveillance cameras were used.
“A person reported a student possibly entering a school campus with a rifle,” said Wilson. “We had students arriving, so we had to make decisions about allowing the kids on campus. We used the cameras in that situation. We used the cameras to see if we could determine what was happening before police responded. As it turned out, it wasn’t a rifle, but that is a good example of how we would use those cameras.”
Wilson also cited the lack of officers available to monitor situations on school campuses, praising the cameras for giving the department the ability to survey areas more quickly than police could respond. In situations like Columbine or Sandy Hook, Wilson said he believes access to cameras could have saved more lives.
While nationally the NSA and other intelligence agencies are reeling from once-classified information finding its way into the public sector, whether from the likes of Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange or miffed foreign leaders, locally the Ventura Police Department hasn’t given any reason to distrust its use of the networked camera systems. The lack of clarity and transparency of national domestic spying program, however, has had a negative effect on all forms of authority.
According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 56 percent of Americans are worried about government surveillance efforts going too far.
Back on the pier, Dixon is ready to call it a day. After a brief conversation regarding public safety, Dixon admits to not minding the fact that cameras are on constant surveillance in various parts of the city. When asked whether or not he’d give the Ventura Police Department access to his home security system, Dixon changed his tune.
“No way,” said Dixon. “In public, it’s fine so everyone can be safe, especially with the way the world is at the moment; but personally, no, that’s where I draw the line.”