City Government Enters Official Bid Process for Public Surveillance System In Beach Areas – Including OB Pier
Winston Smith, you’d better touch those toes. And don’t bend your knees to do it either, because Big Brother’s watching, and if you cheat, he’s gonna know. [Editor: in case you are not familiar with the novel, Winston Smith is the main character in George Orwell’s “1984.”]
It may be a couple decades late, but 1984 has finally arrived – government surveillance cameras are soon to be installed in a handful of locations along the San Diego coast, kicking off a program that seems destined for expansion into a spectrum that could one day encompass every public space in America (and whatever private spaces aren’t protected by a heat-shielding drawn curtain). It might soon be time to bust out those tin-foil-lined hats.
One of this site’s founders, Frank Gormlie, reported almost a year ago on a plan formulated by the city to install a handful of cameras to remotely monitor our beaches (see his original article ).
Back then, the story line as espoused by the folks in the know that we generally call San Diego city staffers was that these cameras were going to be installed in order to monitor for potential water polluters and as an aid to lifeguards, who would apparently henceforth monitor for distraught swimmers via remote video monitoring stations rather than from shacks on the beach, as the budget for staff was at the time being reduced by Mayor Sanders and the City Council. How they intended to dive into the water to save a swimmer in danger from an undisclosed remote location is still unclear to me.
But, as it turns out, the cameras aren’t really being installed for the benefit of the lifeguards, it’s just that the city is pulling money for their installation from the budget of the “Fire-Rescue Department, Lifeguard Division.”
The actual operators are going to be non-department-specific city employees, most likely following the marching orders of the SDPD, Department of Homeland Security, and FBI. At least that’s my take after reading the 97 page “Request for Proposal” document soliciting bids for the installation of these cameras, available for your insomnia-curing pleasure and further education here and summarized with my own cynical slant for the duration of this commentary.
First off, the nuts and bolts…
1. The city wants to install, for starters, up to 16 cameras, in their words “to monitor vessel, vehicle, and pedestrian traffic in and around Mission Bay and the Mission Bay Channel entrance.”
2. The initial proposed sites for these cameras are as follows (note only one proposed in OB at present):
- Ocean Beach Pier
- Mission Point, North.
- Hospitality Point
- Lifeguard Headquarters, parking lot
- Lifeguard Headquarters, operations yard and dock
- Dana Landing Boat Launch
- Vacation Island, South-West corner
- Ski Beach Boat Launch
- Ski Beach, North-East
- South Shores Boat Launch
- Entrance to Fiesta Island
- De Anza Boat Launch
- Crown Point Shores
- Santa Clara Place, East side of the South parking lot
- Riviera Shores, South
- De Anza Mobile Home Park, South.
3. These cameras will have 360 degree rotation, be able to zoom in on an object up to 300 yards (that’s 3 football fields) away “with quality that is acceptable to court and evidence standards.”
The cameras shall be designed with night vision and infrared to shoot 24/7, they will store video for at least 7 days, they shall be designed to withstand extreme weather conditions including rain and snow (yes, the contract writer specified snowproof cameras must be provided), and all equipment must be enshrouded in a bullet-resistant dome.
4. Though the title of the document and subsequent assertions state that the Lifeguard Division is seeking the contract, Section E(4) of the contract states:
“The network of cameras shall be utilized for law enforcement purposes by local, state, and federal agencies.”
5. The cameras will be controlled from a remote location via internet protocol, with individual users having view-only or camera control access according to their assigned login. Digital video recorder (DVR) devices will also be present at each site, backing up all internet-transmitted data for 7 days.
6. The contract for the cameras will also include the design and setup of an office somewhere on city property for monitoring equipment, training for up to 20 city employees on camera operation, a detailed proposal for system upgrades and expansion, and at least 3 years of maintenance and support (renewable for 2 more years at the city’s option).
7. Funding for these cameras is coming to the Lifeguard division through the Urban Area Security Initiative, a bill drafted in the wake of 9/11 by Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and intended to drive money for anti-terrorism measures to areas where the perceived threat of attacks was highest.
Some Odds and Ends
If you’ve never really read a city contract proposal, let me tell you right now that they’re filled with contradictory provisions and absurd requirements. While I understand the need to be thorough and to ensure proposals meet the guidelines of what’s being proposed, 97 (ninety-seven) pages seems to border a bit on the ludicrous.
So does a requirement stating that the selected contractor provide an auto insurance endorsement covering every city employee and elected official prior to starting work, in case one of them borrows a company truck (page 32). There’s also a provision that states the contractor, and not the city, shall bear the cost of defending any lawsuits brought should the city fail to honor a California Public Records Act request for camera footage (page 73).
There are at least three pages dedicated to the billing process the vendor will have to follow. The city also encourages the contractor to offer a ‘prompt payment discount’ to the city if bills are paid within 20 days of coming due (page 21).
The contractor will have to research whether what the city’s requesting is even legal within the scope of its own laws and building codes. If any aspect of the camera installation is prohibited by the city, the contractor has to submit a written evaluation of the law, including suggestions for how the city should go about amending the law to allow the installation to happen (page 35).
While Frank and some others like sdnews.com, a collective of community newspapers including the Peninsula Beacon were raising awareness about the camera proposal as far back as a year ago, the formal bid request process began on March 5. A gathering of interested contractors was held on Tuesday the 16th, and the open period for comments and questions ended last Thursday, the 18th. All proposals are due by the 30th, and the city is expected to green-light one of them within 90 days.
Dave’s Biased and Left-leaning Commentary
I hate the idea of these things. The big-government mantra (on both the red and blue sides) is that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t mind being watched. That other people who would do something wrong will now be scared out of doing it, because they’re being watched. The more we know about you, the better we can protect you from yourselves.
I just think this is a perfect example of slippery slope theory: once they can get away with the red light cameras, they try these, once these work they install more of them, eventually every public space and a lot of supposedly private ones are in someone’s sites. For proof look no further than the recently-implemented airport screening devices at Lindbergh airport, or even Google maps – I was pretty shocked to find out I could zoom in close enough to read my neighbor’s license plate in the parking lot and see in my front bedroom window pretty clearly using their street view feature to check out my apartment.
I hate that the city isn’t being straightforward with its residents about the true purpose of the cameras. When they first went public with the idea, it was in the wake of contaminants being dumped into Mission Bay. These cameras, we were told, would’ve caught whoever was responsible. It was simultaneously announced that the city was laying off two lifeguards due to budget cuts, and that water quality testing and monitoring was going to be cut by about 70% in and around the bay.
I’ll remind you here that although the original contract is going to be funded by an anti-terrorism grant, since the Lifeguard division is going to own the system, its ongoing maintenance is probably going to be their responsibility. The Lifeguard division that can’t even afford all of its lifeguards.
On the lifeguard subject, what good are these cameras going to be for lifeguards? Someone can watch a kid drowning from a remote location, but wouldn’t you rather have that person watching from a lifeguard tower where they can paddle out and drag the swimmer ashore?
I understand there’s some implied forfeiture of privacy expectations when out in public, but what about when you’re in the privacy of your own home? With a 300 yard zoom and night vision capabilities, it’s quite possible, depending on where on the pier the camera is located, that it could peek through windows of people living around the end of Niagra, or in the Silver Spray apartment building.
In European cities like London that have been blanketed with similar systems for years, there have already been some controversies involving pretty girls, open curtains, and camera operators that haven’t always focused on watching the streets.
If the purpose of this surveillance system is law enforcement, whether it’s for DHS to look out to sea for boats that might be smuggling drugs or immigrants, for SDPD to keep an eye on the drug dealers down at the base of the pier, to capture video of drunks stumbling from bars to the parking lot, or anything else, I think the city should be straightforward about that. And the money shouldn’t be coming from Fire (under which the Lifeguard division is classified), since they seem to quite obviously be secondary users, if they’re even going to use the things at all. Right now, it just seems to me like a backdoor way for an ex-cop mayor to sneak funding to the police.
I didn’t see anything mentioned regarding a public comment period or public notice regarding the project, either in the proposal request itself or on any of the snippets I came across during a limited web search. The article linked from sdnews above, however, seems to treat the issue as if it’s a done deal, and that was published a year ago.
Could it really be that these arrangements slipped under all of our noses unnoticed? Or is this the kind of thing that the government doesn’t ask its citizens if they want before foisting it upon them? I’m more of a broad spectrum kind of guy who doesn’t know much about the minutiae of these things, so if anyone wants to expand in the comment section, I’d love to hear.
Where will the OB Pier Camera be installed?
The first 4 are looking back to land from around the gate, where I think the likely camera location is – the illustrative point is that a very clear view could be provided into the interior of a lot of residential units. The next 2 are from farther down the pier out past the restaurant. I focused on the entrance to Mission Bay, because if the camera was out there the only purpose I could see would be for it to monitor boat traffic in and out of the channel (which is quite possible, given that all the other cameras involved in the project seem to have a Mission Bay theme). The last three are looking up and down the pier from around the cafe, which I guesstimate to be about 300 yards out. If the camera were to be mounted there, it could monitor the whole pier, but not much land-based activity.