Tunnel vision: Questions about privacy dog Muni’s high-tech surveillance system

The newest surveillance cameras in San Francisco are on the verge of gaining new insights to provide an extra level of safety for riders.

Once upon a time, a scarecrow braved a harrowing adventure on a yellow brick road to obtain a brain. But Muni’s 300 plus security cameras are only awaiting a few tweaks from software engineers before they gain the digital equivalent of reasoning.

The new artificial intelligence software is capable of analyzing the behavior of humans and other objects — like vehicles — through live video feeds. The cameras, which will be placed inside Muni train stations and tunnels, are intended to catch terrorists and other criminals.

Undoubtedly, they will be smarter than your average scarecrow. But although they’ll soon be endowed with reasoning, Muni’s many surveillance cameras do not yet have rules on how to use them.

Supervisor John Avalos is introducing legislation that requires city agencies’ surveillance cameras come with written policies. The legislation may come soon as August. But a San Francisco Examiner review has found the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and

Avalos’ office did not work on such a policy for the SFMTA’s new “behavior analysis” smart cameras.

Avalos’ office acknowledged working with SFMTA on red light cameras, but told the Examiner the SFMTA did not bring up the smart cameras for policy consideration under the ordinance.
From the Police Department’s police body cameras to the SFMTA’s red light cameras, Avalos’ proposed legislation gave city agencies a preemptive reason to consider San Francisco citizens’ privacy and safety by way of crafting preliminary rules.

Avalos created the ordinance with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, which asks agencies to clarify basic surveillance transparency requirements such as holding a public process on surveillance, guaranteeing review on success or failure of surveillance, and weighing the privacy and fiscal costs of surveillance.

It also asks agencies to identify who will have access to surveillance video and how long it will be stored.

The fear is that everyday citizens will have their privacy breached, the ACLU has said publicly, by overreaching government agencies who track their movement and information.
Avalos was surprised when the Examiner informed him of the cameras, and said the SFMTA did not discuss a need for privacy policies for the 300 or so cameras.

“I hope the MTA board will work with us and civil liberties advocates,” Avalos said, “to make sure privacy protections are in place before they deploy any future surveillance technologies.”

The SFMTA said it was working on policies on its own.

“We are still developing internal policies and adjusting the software for our system’s needs,” agency spokesman Paul Rose told the Examiner. “As we go through this process, we will ensure that we follow all legislative requirements before we move forward.”

SFMTA’s behavioral analytics programming was created by BRS Labs, which has also augmented cameras in cities nationwide. Rose said the software will be implemented to help protect Muni’s more than 500,000 weekly train riders from potential terrorists and criminals.

The software is unique, according to BRS Labs, because although most video-analytic software depends on human-created rules, BRS’s patented software can reason on its own — and learn. It watches patterns in security cameras, and when it sees deviations from those patterns it alerts a human security officer.

Muni also installed thermal imaging-specific cameras in its tunnels, allowing the agency to spot every rat, graffiti artist and potential terrorist who may enter the dark tubes.

Crimes as small as graffiti and as large as a potential bombing may be detected using surveillance footage, based on past cases.

Jennifer Lynch is a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group whose mission is to defend digital privacy rights in the private sector, as well as federal, state and local governments. Lynch said the lack of a policy statement for these cameras, even at an early stage, is problematic.

“If behavioral analytics is implemented properly, it’s looking for abnormal behavior,” Lynch said. But “any footage that doesn’t reflect abnormal behavior should be destroyed, because its not useful. There are ways this can be implemented to protect privacy.”
That, she said, is why the ACLU model ordinance adopted by Avalos is so important.
“It lays those policies out in the beginning,” Lynch said.

Rose said as of now, the SFMTA intends to hang on to its surveillance footage for about a month. As for access, the footage would be publicly available like any government materials, he said, but with some exceptions. He did not describe what those exceptions would be.
An invoice from BRS Labs shows the SFMTA was billed just over $2 million for the software, a deal first announced in 2012.

Rose said of the three year wait that “we are currently working with the manufacturer to adjust the software for our system’s needs.” The software was installed last year.

The SFMTA is “working on a timeline for implementation with the manufacturer,” Rose said.

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