The city's Real Time Crime Monitoring Center. Credit: City of New Orleans

New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams announced at a Wednesday meeting that he is pumping the brakes on a contract that would add 146 new public video cameras with audio capability until the council can craft and pass a comprehensive ordinance to regulate the use of surveillance technologies in New Orleans. 

“It’s important that we be extremely concerned about the unintentional impacts that can come from a well meaning initiative,” he said. “The technology is moving so much faster than government and our regulations.”

Williams said that his decision was largely prompted by conversations he had with Eye on Surveillance, a local community group focused on New Orleans’ rapidly expanding video surveillance system. Several members of the group, including organizer Marvin Arnold, were present on Wednesday to voice their opposition to the new public cameras, as well as their appreciation of Williams’ willingness to work with them to craft new regulations.

“This committee adopts your opposition,” Williams told them. “I think your work on this has been excellent.”

Williams also took the opportunity to reflect on the rapid ascent of New Orleans’ current city surveillance system, which was launched in 2017 by then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Last year, the city claimed to have access to live video feeds from 442 city-owned cameras, along with 331 private camera feeds through the city’s Safecam Platinum program, which allows citizens and businesses to link their private cameras to the city’s system.

“Since Mitch left, we have these flashing blue lights everywhere,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “There’s no mapping, there’s no protocols, there’s no protocols for the data. So we had issues with that.”

Williams said that the election of President Donald Trump and the progression of surveillance around the world have changed his views.

“When we had those initial conversations, the President of the United States was Barack Obama,” he said during the meeting. “After that election and the awareness of the footage retrieval and data retrieval that might have been used in a way that the previous administration wouldn’t have used them. Changes in immigration policy have led to concerns for several council members.”

Williams launched his official campaign for Orleans Parish District Attorney last week, setting himself up as a progressive District Attorney candidate focused on criminal justice reform. That election happens later this year.

Williams told The Lens that he will work with Eye on Surveillance and the public at large to craft an ordinance within the next four months. He said it will draw from language that Eye on Surveillance has already drafted, regulations in other cities and existing policies within the Real Time Crime Center, which serves as the hub of the New Orleans’ camera network. 

The resolution that Williams put on pause would have approved a contract between the city and Entergy New Orleans to create a ‘smart cities pilot.’  Entergy would pay $3.2 million for the new technology with recent tax savings. The contract, which was being considered at the request of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, would add two new pieces of technology to street lamps in the Central Business District. One of those pieces of equipment would be “Advanced Camera Sensor Devices,” or ACSDs.

According to the contract, the ACSDs would be purchased from GE City IQ, a joint venture between General Electric, Intel and AT&T. According to a brochure by Intel, the ACSDs include video recording, audio detection, weather monitoring and Wi-Fi local hotspots. 

Along with privacy concerns, advocates from the Alliance for Affordable Energy objected to the contract as an inappropriate use of ratepayer dollars. 

The original contract was for 146 ACSDs. As The Lens reported last month, the council was expecting that number to fall to just 90. But by the time an updated contract was presented on Wednesday, the total number of cameras had jumped back up to 146.

The primary function of the cameras wouldn’t be for law enforcement purposes, and they wouldn’t feed live footage to the Real Time Crime Center, or RTCC. The cameras’ intended purpose, according to the contract, would be to analyze traffic and pedestrian patterns, which could help the city improve traffic flows, set up bike lanes and free up police officers who would otherwise have to help coordinate traffic.

The contract did stipulate, however, that the RTCC could retrieve stored footage from the cameras. Williams said that his original focus was limiting how these 146 cameras, specifically, could be used by creating restrictions on the use of facial recognition, video magnification, license plate reading and other capabilities. 

But after speaking with Eye on Surveillance organizers, Williams said he recognized the need for restrictions and regulations not just for this pilot program, but for all surveillance programs in the city. 

“We pressed pause on the most innocuous version of cameras,” Williams said. “We didn’t do it because we didn’t think the pilot was a good idea. But now is the time. The companion ordinance would not just be tied to this pilot; it would deal with camera technology broadly in the City of New Orleans.”

The city has been pursuing “smart cities” technologies in recent years. The concept of “smart cities” is broad and has varying definitions. But in general, the idea is to drastically ramp up the amount of data that cities collect from citizens and infrastructure in order to improve city services. 

Similar programs around the world have led cities to install technologies with surveillance capabilities that weren’t fully understood by the public. Wi-Fi kiosks installed in New York City, for example, were later found to be tracking user’s movements. “Smart trash cans” in London, meanwhile, were scraping data from the phones of passing pedestrians.

As these new, often misunderstood technologies reach New Orleans, Williams said it will be important to already have laws in place that protect citizens, rather than scrambling to create limitations on each individual technology. 

Williams didn’t put a concrete list of issues that an ordinance would cover. But he specifically brought up concerns he had with the software, called BriefCam, that the city uses to process recorded footage. As The Lens reported in 2018, the power of the city’s surveillance system is largely contingent on the software used to process and search through thousands of hours of footage to find what they’re looking for.

BriefCam claims that it “detects, tracks, extracts and identifies people and objects from video, including; men, women, children, clothing, bags, vehicles, animals, size, color, speed, path, direction, dwell time, and more,” according to a press release announcing that New Orleans had purchased the software. 

Privacy advocates have argued that this type of “characteristic recognition” can be just as powerful as facial recognition software. The use of facial recognition isn’t allowed under the RTCC’s policies, although those policies have not been codified in city law.

Williams also mentioned the issue of whether the RTCC cameras should be used to actively monitor people and investigate using live footage, or whether the city should only utilize recorded footage after a crime has been committed. 

The city has claimed that its surveillance system is ‘complaint-based,’ and is only used after a complaint or crime occurs. But in 2018, The Lens found evidence that the city was using its cameras to actively monitor and coordinate a drug bust. The Appeal reported another similar case in New Orleans last year.

Those are just two topics out of a laundry list of surveillance technologies and issues that don’t currently have clear regulations or limits in local law. And Williams said he wants the ordinance to be broad. 

“The ordinance we’re working on with Marvin would deal with all of that,” he said. “You can’t un-know what you already know.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...