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BART plans to expand surveillance after Nia Wilson killing raise privacy concerns

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(Ekevara Kitpowsong/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

Plans to expand surveillance on BART in response to the prominent slaying of Nia Wilson have privacy advocates concerned that transit officials are seizing on the moment in an attempt to roll out potentially invasive technologies.

General Manager Grace Crunican has proposed to spend $15 million on upgrading security cameras and $4 million on installing video software designed to alert authorities when an incident occurs in the system. She has also proposed video screens in stations that would display live footage from the area.

The proposals are part of a $28 million Safety and Security Action Plan up for discussion on Thursday at the BART Board of Directors meeting.

The plans come as BART faces pressure to reduce crime after Wilson and her sister were stabbed while transferring trains at MacArthur Station on July 22. Wilson, 18, died.

Police later identified 27-year-old John Lee Cowell, a transient man from Concord, as the suspect through survelliance footage and arrested him after a brief manhunt. He has since been charged with murder.

The killing drew national attention, with many speculating that race motivated the stabbing because Wilson was black and Cowell is white. Prosecutors have found no evidence to prove that is the case.

Responding to the furor, Crunican revealed the security plans on Monday and said in a statement, “BART has always been focused on public safety but it’s clear that we must do even more.”

But the lack of information included in the proposals has prompted some including Brian Hofer, chair of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, to question how the proposals will improve public safety.

“They’ve literally provided no analysis of how PSIM will protect the Nia Wilsons of the world,” Hofer said Wednesday, referring to the proposed Physical Security Information Management System, the analytics software that would notify police.

Crunican explained in the proposal that PSIM “is capable of monitoring thousands of simultaneous video streams and automating response recommendations to” BART police dispatch.

The program would be connected with 2,000 cameras already in the system and another 1,500 that Crunican has proposed converting from analog to digital format under her camera improvement plan.

Hofer told the San Francisco Examiner another issue is that the proposals do not currently specify what data would be collected, shared or retained.

“There is no policy, there is no analysis, there is nothing,” Hofer said. “Because of the moment we’re in with Nia Wilson, they’re just trying to rush this through. They need to really tell us what they’re doing.”

Jim Allison, a spokesperson for BART, said the system is not considering using facial recognition technology under the PSIM software. The use of such software would likely raise privacy and civil liberties concerns for activists. Facial recognition has also been known to incorrectly identify individuals.

“We are not introducing a facial recognition technology now because we need to know more about its effectiveness and flaws,” Allison told the Examiner in an email. “We are also not introducing anything that would allow the agency to track or store cell phone information.”

But BART board member Nick Josefowitz, a candidate for District 2 supervisor in San Francisco, has separately proposed installing facial recognition software “to identify those with warrants for violent felonies entering the system.”

“We must use the best available technology to confront challenges in our community, including crime,” Josefowitz said in a statement, while adding the caveats that, “If we can’t have strong oversight and privacy policies, and if there are significant civil rights impacts, we should certainly not proceed.”

BART board member Rebecca Saltzman said she is against using facial recognition. “I think privacy is a serious concern and we need to balance that with safety and security,” Saltzman told the Examiner.

Saltzman said she would not support any proposals to expand surveillance until the board passes a long-awaited surveillance policy being written with privacy activists. The policy is expected to be up for a vote in the fall.

She also noted the lack of details in the proposals. “I do have concerns but we have very little information at this point,” Saltzman said.

The BART board is only expected to vote Thursday on a $800,000 proposal from Crunican to hire two fare inspectors immediately to work in the evenings. The proposal also recommends BART hire more inspectors next fiscal year.


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