Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Planned MUNI cameras cross the line

June 11, 2012

After reading in the SF Examiner “Cameras to keep eye on threats at Muni stations” (Will Reisman 6/11/2012), I’m appalled and fearful of not the other patrons on Muni, but of the people who are running this particular system and choosing to put in these cameras in place. These experimental high tech cameras will be paid for with state and federal grants and are slated to be rolled out early next year at the cost of $3.6 million dollars.

The SFMTA is set to install 400 high tech cameras that are designed to detect “abnormal behavior and subsequently alert authorities about potential safety risks.” Using behavioral recognition software, these can detect large gatherings at underground stations, unattended packages and cars on the train tracks. It would then pass that information to central command, which could then stop nearby trains.

Let’s look at each part.

If we’re going pick up on large gatherings at stations, wouldn’t that be every morning, when there can be upwards of 200 people waiting on the platform for a train? I think so. But really, this is clearly in response to protests and gatherings that have come about in the past couple of years, not on Muni, but on BART. There were protests on BART after both the 2009 New Year’s killing of Oscar Grant by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, and again in 2011 when BART police shot and killed a drunk man, Charles Hill, at Civic Center. The latter prompted BART to shut off cell phone access in an effort to prevent another protest gathering on the BART system, which only lead to more outrage. There have been no such protests on Muni. Yet, in this day and age, with more people standing up and protesting against large corporate government, it seems all too fitting that the growing domestic security forces want to increase and experiment with crowd control.

The cameras will also supposedly detect and report unattended packages. Again, Muni has not been targeted for any terrorist activity of the sort. Traditionally, any packages or belongings that are left behind are promptly reported to the Muni staff as we often receive announcements if anyone has seen a blue shopping bag or a black jacket with keys in the pocket. I think most people are aware of what they bring on the bus and what they leave behind…except, of course, for those untidy patrons who think that the bus is the best place to leave their trash. Muni stations are not airports. Nor should we be paying police officers or security officers to act as lost-and-found hall monitors.

Next we go onto the detection of abnormal behavior. Now, welcome to SF, folks. What’s normal? Can anybody spell that word here? Muni spokesman, Paul Rose said, “This is not profiling, but rather behavioral analytics that can determine common trends on the system and use that information to detect abnormalities.” Although the word ‘racial’ is not used here, nor is the word ‘radical’, there is a lot they are not telling us about what they purport will raise an alert. If these cameras are, “about increasing safety and security”, perhaps they mean threatening behavior? That explanation, however, has not been defined.
Does that mean that it would peg my activity as abnormal if I’m looking out the window or reading a book when everyone else around me has their heads hung looking at their PDAs in their hands? Would I be detected for smiling, or whistling a tune, or telling the driver to have a nice day? All of these things are currently abnormal, so far as I can tell, and I ride Muni all the time, and have for the gross majority – and I mean gross majority – of my life as a San Francisco native.
As a lifelong Muni rider, I can confidently say that most riders do want a safe, quiet, peaceful ride. They don’t want to feel threatened or bothered. Currently, few of these basic necessities are met. We’re met with screeching doors when they’re not able to close properly, a brand new Clipper system which sends out high frequency sound waves that echo every time somebody tags their card (which still doesn’t make sense to me why someone with a monthly pass would need to ‘register’ their ride every time…If you’ve already paid, why do they need to know where you’re going?). Also, a safe ride means not having overcrowded busses and trains, and yet every day, people cram into the cars that don’t come frequently enough or arrive as only single-cars during commute hours. There are a variety of hazards that come with it, such as swinging into other patrons or having your balance knocked off kilter from fast stops or rugged streets.

Also, on the rare occasion that a car enters a Muni tunnel by accident, there are always witnesses or other video cameras to detect it promptly and prevent injury.
We’re forgetting the biggest key to riding public transportation anywhere in the world: self-awareness, awareness of your surroundings. Understand that tuning out from other riders doesn’t always mean it’s the safest thing to do. It’s not the state or the federal government’s responsibility to hold onto your cell phone tighter or keep you from making bad decisions about who you sit near or talk back to. It’s not even the driver’s responsibility. It’s the responsibility of each and every passenger who decides to take public transit.

Certainly, we want it to be safe. But being surveilled or made to think that anything we do to step out of line may possibly be considered as a breach of security does not make me feel safe. Nor does it make me think that public resources are going to the right places. Why isn’t that $3.6 million being designated to increase and improve our fleet? And if you think about the nature of public transit, how quick would a response really be? There’s no guarantee that any sort of theft or violence would be intercepted in a timely manner. We’re talking about MUNI and the SFPD, neither of which has a great reputation for showing up when you need them.
The most dangerous part of all is that this “contract” - between the SFMTA and the State/Federal government – did not require the approval of the SFMTA board of directors. Chairman of the Board, Tom Nolan, was quoted as saying, “Cameras are ubiquitous now…You just have to assume that someone is always watching you.” In the United States of America, which is supposed to be a free country, I don’t think someone with that attitude should be in a position of public authority. Privacy is a human right that gets grossly violated constantly. That doesn’t mean that it’s justifiable for a public transit system to try to monitor oddities under the false guise of safety. The safe move would be to reject complacency for this gross violation of experimental security designed to keep people in line in a free country.