A city surveillance camera, from August 2019. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

As a citizen concerned with the health and liberty of our fellow New Orleanians during this unprecedented time, I was outraged to learn of the City of New Orleans continued expansion of surveillance tactics and tools through unconstitutional police checkpoints and new contracts with surveillance companies. These irresponsible choices divert funds and attention from assisting those most affected by the intersection of COVID-19 and existing structural inequalities.

After public pressure from New Orleanians who don’t want to be watched, NOPD decided to end the checkpoints. But with the existing surveillance infrastructure in the city, not much has really changed. The coronavirus crisis in New Orleans and across the world has encouraged some governments to expand citizen surveillance in ways that will be difficult to unravel without strong public oversight. 

On March 15, the city entered into an agreement with Israeli tech firm Carbyne, which asks users dialing 911 in crisis to agree to be surveilled without regulations or limits. A month later, NOPD began instituting police checkpoints across the city, despite public outcry that eventually ended the checkpoints.

City Council members agree that this lack of process and transparency needs to change. After halting the installation of over 100 new cameras that would have fed into the city’s Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) recently, Councilmember Jason Williams admitted, “It’s important that we be extremely concerned about the unintentional impacts that can come from a well meaning initiative.” He said the city needs comprehensive limits and regulations on surveillance tools before they are allowed to proliferate further.

We agree, and this is why we, along with other members of the Eye on Surveillance coalition, demand that the City end undemocratic partnerships with surveillance companies until a comprehensive ordinance is passed, such as the one our coalition has drafted here, that protects citizens from invasive surveillance.

The implementation of Carbyne’s surveillance tool and the police checkpoints occured on top of an already invasive and underregulated system of cameras and tracking technology. New Orleans is home to one of the country’s widest networks of surveillance cameras, outfitted with technologies such as Briefcam that can locate people based on their clothes or cars and with the ability to zoom in from a distance of two football fields. The suite of software from Motorola Solutions that the City uses to host this and other programs cost taxpayers $2.8 million. These systems were all created and approved without a transparent process, one that should outline the many risks and biases built into surveillance technology.

Additionally, New Orleans already uses a high-tech 911 service from a company called RapidSOS to provide faster 911 response times. While an important mission, without a strong ordinance protecting New Orleanians from unauthorized data sharing, the people who call 911 in crisis have no way of knowing or controlling whether their personal information is being shared with one of RapidSOS’s many private partners, which include Apple, Google, and Uber.

Carbyne’s addition lets 911 operators access an individual’s phone location and camera after obtaining consent via text message. How can someone in a moment of crisis agree to being surveilled? Why does New Orleans consistently allow its citizens in times of emergency, such as during and after Katrina, to be guinea pigs for “snap” fixes like charter schools, privatized hospitals, and surveillance technologies that have no proven record of keeping anyone safer or healthier than less invasive measures?

Moments of crisis like the one we are experiencing now are times to come together, to support each other as one community. This should not be a time for private companies to make a profit from human suffering. We must defund tools of surveillance like police checkpoints and shift our priorities towards investments in personal protective equipment for essential workers in the short term and better schools, job opportunities, and housing in the long term — investments that have a tangible return on public safety.

Advocates of surveillance technology say that the use of these tools brings us into the 21st century. That may well be true, if we want to enable the abusive practices of years past and present.  Existing biases do not disappear with new technologies. 

Studies such as this one from San Francisco have concluded that the use of cameras as a surveillance tool has led to women and people of color being unfairly targeted, tracked, and arrested. The New Orleans Police Department cites the cameras for saving police hours, but admits there’s no evidence of keeping New Orleanians any safer. Also alarming is the use of yet another technology in New Orleans that comes out of Israel’s large industry of surveillance for profit and militarized policing, an industry known for exporting racist and disproportionate tactics of surveillance and control used on Palestinians to police departments across the US and to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

The City of New Orleans has already proven that without stricter oversight, it cannot be trusted to approve the use of surveillance technologies. We saw evidence of this in 2012 when technology giant Palantir (funded by Peter Theil, not so coincidentally a funder of Carbyne) was allowed unprecedented access to City data for six years to implement a “crime tracking” program that was unsuccessful in other cities and repeatedly showed bias against Black communities. The City also showed its reluctance for transparency as it fought the ACLU for years to keep a map of the crime cameras private. After spending taxpayer money trying to cover up what was already public information, the City has yet  to provide an accurate map that shows all 500-plus city-owned cameras tied to its network. 

Surveillance technologies don’t make us safer and disproportionately harm those already impacted by systemic racism, the war on working people, and the war on immigrants. Now more than ever we need strong regulations on surveillance technology that protect each and every New Orleanian. 

This is why the Eye on Surveillance coalition is urging people to support our policy proposal, which ensures that all New Orleanians, regardless of race, immigration status, gender, or occupation, feel safe in our city. Please join us and visit our website to learn how you can sign on: Eye on Surveillance

Sincerely, 

Lucy Blumberg, Jewish Voice for Peace New Orleans
And the following members of the Eye On Surveillance (EOS) Coalition:

  • Bridget Nolan, Democratic Socialists of America
  • Theodore Thompson, The Black Man Rising Movement
  • Marvin Arnold
  • Sade Dumas, Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC)
  • Allie, BARE NOLA
  • Renard Bridgewater, The Musician & Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO)
  • Dee Dee Green, AFSC & Peace by Piece New Orleans

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at twright@thelensnola.org.