The era of Big Brother government is here, and only informed citizens can stop it.
Drones on domestic soil cloaked under terms like “persistent surveillance,” cameras on every corner, secretive agreements between local law enforcement and the federal government. And now, with social media platforms, secret agreements to share data beyond what is publicly shared. The push to invade our privacy under the guise of national security or fighting crime is getting a stealth boost while citizens are overwhelmed with COVID-19 and its impact on our lives.
St. Louis must open its eyes to the spying infrastructure the police and their political yes-men have created in our backyard. The Real Time Crime Center, where the city’s 1105 cameras feed streams of information 24/7, has no formal regulation from the Board of Aldermen. You the voter get no say in what technologies this government acquires or how it is used. More than 15 other cities around the country including cities like Nashville have stood up to this overreach and said no. St. Louis should not hesitate to join that camp.
In the case of Michael Avery, the government scoured his social media and made an arrest based on a post, not on actions Mr. Avery took. Is your social media spotless? Would you want the government to read through everything you post, tweet, text?
When Mayor Krewson read out addresses of protestors, she didn’t break the law; she broke trust. What her actions demonstrate is just how tenuous our balance of liberties remains. We cannot freely express ourselves if we operate in the shadow of fear created by government retribution. Without privacy protections, we are all vulnerable.
Recent reports allege a former Clayton Police officer – a school resource officer in fact – used surveillance cameras to peer into his neighbors’ bedrooms. We await to see how far this abuse of power goes. What we already know is that St. Louis deserves better, and right now we have a moment to pass Community Control Over Police Surveillance and ensure that the people watch the watchers.
The scene nationally foreshadows what awaits St. Louis. In January, in Michigan, a Black father was arrested in front of his children because of faulty facial recognition software. Recently, reports surfaced of cell phone data used to profile protestors in four major U.S. cities. This isn’t new. During the protests decrying the senseless death of Freddie Gray, police used facial recognition software against protestors. Right now, a company called ClearView AI has a huge database of faces, and it combs the internet for any image of you to search, even if it was posted without your consent.
Guess who’s searching this database? Law enforcement – 600 law enforcement agencies, to be precise. For Black and Brown communities who feel the brunt of police occupation, surveillance will only add another repressive dimension. This isn’t about our communities feeling safe. This is about controlling the movements of ordinary citizens in protection of the status quo.
An unregulated flow of near $4 million went into surveillance over the past three years in St. Louis with no dent in serious crimes. In a cash-strapped city, we should be looking at our budget through a human needs lens and not unconditionally boosting the police budget.
Alderman Tom Oldenburg has proposed the uncapped expansion of aerial surveillance and the further militarization of our police, and another set is proposing citizen overview of surveillance technology. If these last few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the people, not the government, shape the future. I urge this city to shape a future that keeps pace with human development and places a hard stop on technological tyranny.