San Jose activists, councilmember push surveillance regulation
A woman passes in front of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in downtown San Jose. The building's entrance has a security camera affixed to its doorframe. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

    Like many parents of young children in this pandemic age, Ethan Gregory Dodge is at the mercy of technology when it comes to his daughter’s education—sometimes the connection will lag, sometimes homework isn’t entirely clear through a screen.

    But what Dodge hasn’t left to chance is how technology interacts with him and those around him in his city, San Jose.

    “We want to set the city and jurisdictions up for long-term success when it comes to surveillance,” said Dodge.

    His recent concerns about surveillance have been brought in front of the City Council in the past few weeks. A coalition of more than two dozen local racial justice groups and privacy groups, including one Dodge works with, lobbied the council last month to include a surveillance ordinance as one of the council’s top priorities. Although the item didn’t make the final top two priorities at Monday’s meeting, they won initial support from Councilmember Sergio Jimenez.

    “I think it’s important,” said Jimenez of the proposal. “We need to be sensitive to data.”

    Dodge, the founder of the Citizens Privacy Coalition of Santa Clara County, has advocated for stricter and more regulated surveillance technology as the city looks to turn to more so-called “smart city” initiatives, which use sensors and other electronic media to collect data. While smart cities use such technology to track urban services like water and electricity, the technology can just as easily be used to track individuals. Advocates say that the technology is moving too fast for government to keep up, which necessitates an ordinance on surveillance tech.

    “There are ways of ensuring at least some kind of harm reduction,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital rights group. “A lot of these technologies aren’t great, but there are ways to deploy them, so they are less harmful.”

    The coalition is pushing for actions like a ban on citywide facial recognition technology, which some studies have shown are inherently biased against people of color. They’re also resisting law enforcement technologies such as drones, which have been used by law enforcement in certain cities to track protesters.

    ”Regulators need to step in at this time so we have time to think through the ramifications of such surveillance tech,” said Lourdes Turrecha, a professor of privacy law at Santa Clara University.

    Federal intelligence agencies have come under fire in recent months for relying on surveillance to track Black Lives Matter protesters. Details of government surveillance at these protests have surfaced, including reports of a Predator drone operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection flying over protests in Minneapolis on May 29 and requests from the Los Angeles Police Department for doorbell video footage of protesters.

    Just last week, civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit in Alameda County alleging that Alameda-based Clearview AI was using scraped personal data to track people.

    Sometimes, like in the case of Detroit man Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, facial recognition tech can get the wrong person.

    “There are false positives that come up sometimes when you are using these immature technologies,” Turrecha said. “There are serious ramifications to those people’s liberty.”

    Pushing for regulation, advocates say, might solve problems like false positives and racial bias within the technology itself.

    There might be some evidence that surveillance regulation is working: A ban on facial recognition in San Francisco could have saved the city from a digital hack that swept the Bay Area on Thursday. A breach of San Mateo security camera technology company Verkada on Thursday by a Swiss-based hacker appears to have compromised the security and taken facial pictures of thousands of private and public entities across the world and in the Bay Area, reaching as far south as Evergreen Community College in East San Jose.

    It’s a problem, Dodge said, that could be avoided if city regulations are implemented in San Jose—subjecting every surveillance technology up for review by a task force and the City Council and more oversight by the city on any technology that collects data on residents.

    “San Jose talks about being the capital of Silicon Valley, and all these technological advances are happening in our own territory,” said Dodge. “They’re advancing faster than we can keep up.”

    Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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