Creeping Big Brother in OB and Beyond

by on April 7, 2010 · 16 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Environment, Health, Media, Ocean Beach, San Diego, War and Peace

big-brother-posterSurveillance Camera and Police Watch Tower Coming to Ocean Beach

Big Brother is creeping into our lives, inch by inch, camera by camera, tower by tower.  Recent posts on our blog have described plans by the City of San Diego to install surveillance cameras in and around Mission Bay, including one on the OB Pier, and that the San Diego Police Department dragged out their controversial mobile watch tower for this year’s first Floatopia.

Surveillance cameras, police towers … Big Brother is definitely creeping in … do you remember the origins of Big Brother? He is a fictional character in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dictator with seemingly absolute control in Oceania, a society that is a totalitarian state.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the “Party” – the ruling elite – have total power over their citizens. In his book, Orwell describes this nightmarish society where everyone is under complete surveillance by governmental authorities. This is accomplished mainly by telescreens – a two-way TV -, but also by cameras, and spies. The phrase “Big Brother is watching you” was constantly thrown at the inhabitants to remind them of their predicament.

Since the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the term “Big Brother” has become common-place in our language, and is used to describe any overly-controlling authority figure or attempts by government to increase surveillance or abuse of civil liberties by government power.

cop tower

Mobile police observation tower, Floatopia, March 2010.

Police Got Their Observation Tower

Over a year ago, the Union-Tribune reported that the San Diego Police Department, after some trial runs, was about to purchase a $119,000 mobile observation tower to assist them in law enforcement and crowd control.

The two-story “… mobile observation tower … is similar to a cherry-picker lift with an enclosed pod at the top. The platform gives police a 360-degree vantage point through heavily tinted windows and allows them to direct responding officers on the ground below.

… the pod is filled with a range of high-tech tools to help officers gather intelligence, monitor crowds and prevent crime. … The funds will come from a Homeland Security grant ….The cameras can zoom in up to three-quarters of a mile away and can be operated remotely.

The watch tower – in trial runs – was used several places, including:

  • at the beach (Mission Beach?) over Labor Day 2009,
  • along Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach for New Year’s Eve 2009
  • at University Towne Center during the holidays and
  • at Qualcomm Stadium during December 2008’s Chargers/Raiders game
  • At Floatopia, as we mentioned, March 2010;
  • El Cajon police used one at the Westfield Parkway Plaza shopping mall, Christmas 2009 and 2010, among other places, to monitor crowds. They used Homeland Security funds to purchase their tower – which is very similar to the SDPD’s – in 2006 for $90,000.
  • The Sheriff’s Department bought a tower about two years ago and has used it at several community events, including at the county fair in Del Mar.

The U-T reported on how police departments just love the watch tower:

“It has assisted us in making arrests and has certainly been a huge deterrent,” said SDpolice Capt. Shelley Zimmerman, who has used the tower throughout the Northern Division as a test run.

And more:

“It’s been extremely useful,” said sheriff’s Lt. Phil Brust. “We’ve been able to view vehicle burglaries and been able to view fights that have occurred in different areas.”

Brust said the tower, which is equipped with sensitive cameras, has also come in handy for intelligence-gathering.

This blog also reported that the towers manufacturer, ICx Technologies, of Arlington, VA, called their the tower “SkyWatch Frontier”, which “was originally designed to meet the needs of forward deployed military forces.”

The mobility and functionality of the Frontier make it ideal for use at impermanent bases or as part of security operations around critical infrastructure facilities.

Over a year ago, in our report, we quoted from the manufacturer’s online brochure, which definitely emphasized the military use of the facility. Then the brochure added that “due to varying levels of enemy activities” the Frontier comes in 3 different types of armor and gun ports.

The then online brochure stated:

“The Skywatch Frontier was developed with the intention of being deployed with our military forces and as such provides optional ballistic capabilities for those areas in which enemy activity is at its highest. Due to this inherent design, the Frontier can meet the rigors of expeditionary missions not only for the military, but also for border patrol and high level security arenas.”

The Skywatch Frontier can be loaded with a significant array of surveillance and monitoring equipment as well as high level communications capabilities.

The high profile also acts as a significant deterrent to enemy forces.

Today, the emphasis is on law enforcement. The new “SkyWatch” is described at ICx Technologies’ website:

Vantage point is everything when it comes to surveillance. SkyWatch™ units provide a high level platform for an array of surveillance options. Every tower includes the basics for the comfort and safety of the officer inside through adjustable heat and air conditioning, tinted sliding glass windows and comfortable seating. And no matter the application, only one person is required to set up and deploy a unit.

The SkyWatch can easily be relocated and is rugged enough to handle even the most primitive off-road conditions. And all models are adaptable for cameras, radios, public address systems and other equipment integration.

Now, one officer can cover an area previously requiring three or more personnel.

Some day, the police observation tower will come to Ocean Beach, perhaps this summer. (Why hasn’t it already?)

surveillancecamerasThe Camera for the Pier of Oceania Beach

A couple of weeks ago, our blogger PSD posted a review of the City of San Diego’s plans for 16 surveillance cameras – primarily in Mission Bay – and one on the OB Pier.

PSD listed the “nuts and bolts”:

  • San Diego is to install up to 16 surveillance cameras, “to monitor vessel, vehicle, and pedestrian traffic in and around Mission Bay and the Mission Bay Channel entrance.”(My emphasis.)
  • Including the OB Pier (exact location unknown) the cameras will be set up around Mission Bay – See Map.
  • These cameras will have 360 degree rotation, high quality zoom capabilities for objects up to 300 yards, night vision and infrared to shoot 24/7, seven day storage, able to withstand extreme weather conditions and be enshrouded in bullet-resistant domes.
  • Section E(4) of the RfP contract states: “The network of cameras shall be utilized for law enforcement purposes by local, state, and federal agencies.”
  • Funding for these cameras is coming from the Urban Area Security Initiative, drafted in the wake of 9/11 and intended to provide money for anti-terrorism efforts to areas where the perceived threat of attacks was highest.

Imagine, a government police surveillance camera on the OB Pier. Might as well call it the Oceania Beach Pier, in honor of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Mission Bay cameras ed s

Here is my estimation of where the City wants to install the 16 surveillance cameras to monitor vessel, vehicle and pedestrian traffic in and around Mission Bay, based on descriptions from the Request for Proposal on the project.

Surveillance Cameras Are Everywhere

Heck, maybe it’s time for OB to catch up with the rest of society, and join the communities under the watchful lens of law enforcement.  Surveillance cameras are everywhere.

Now, there’s two types of these cameras: private cameras and government ones. For instance, there’s a private video camera on top of the OB Hotel run by the OBMA.  It already takes in views of the Pier and whatever else is going on in and around the foot of Newport Avenue. And anybody can view it.

I’m most concerned, however, with government surveillance cameras in public space or spheres.

Yet, if cameras installed by the “private sphere” are used by government and/or law enforcement, then they are no longer “private.”  And still, surveillance cameras in the private sphere can be just as “effective” as their “public” counter-parts.

Think of all the places you’ve seen surveillance cameras … maybe not the 360 degree types, the bullet-proof ones, but watching lens at any rate.  Many private facilities and buildings have these cameras outside. But they are inside many places as well.

You see them in banks, in malls, sports stadiums, in elevators, office buildings, some restaurants, in casinos, convenience stores, ATMs, and in fact many workplaces have them, and many housing projects have them externally.

Now, think of all the surveillance cameras you’ve seen or know of installed and run by various elements of the government: traffic signals, airports, freeways, the border fence, and some parks  and beaches, some cities  have them on their buses, trolleys, subway stations, and public schools, government office buildings, courthouses … the list goes on and on.

While you mull this over, I’ll work on Part Two … of the Creep of Big Brother.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

bodysurferbob April 7, 2010 at 3:41 pm

can’t you love it! close down the libraries, cut schools back, take out the fire pits, but goddamn it! put in surveillance cameras and police towers.


jim g April 7, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Who said this is a fact? Not a idea or a thought ? Has anyone asked the City ? Kevin F. ? or is it fodder ?


PSD April 7, 2010 at 9:14 pm

Jim – at Frank’s behest I covered this a couple weeks ago (he linked me near the beginning of his article) – apparently this is a done deal, the city is currently considering contract proposals and will likely greenlight the camera installations by the end of June.


PSD April 7, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Damnit, it’s just too much to ask for me to get 16 groups of people to gather at different locations to simultaneously perform lewd acts while wearing rubber Nixon masks once these things go up. Thanks for taking the reins and furthering this important piece, Frank…I don’t mean to make light of the threat these suckers are, but I don’t know what else to do/say…


Abby April 8, 2010 at 7:53 am

I’m up for it, but I don’t own a Nixon mask. Will Guy Fawkes work?


Frank Gormlie April 9, 2010 at 8:08 am

Yes Abby, let’s all grab our Guy Fawkes masks and converge on the OB Pier at the selected hour. I loved that movie “V”


JMW April 8, 2010 at 2:03 am

Can you say Emmanuel Goldstein? So, anti-terrorism funds for projects in OB/MB? Hmm. What do they expect to see? RPGs? Taleban? Osama? Ah, pot smokers! Underage drinking! Truants! Dogs at large! Now we’re talkin’. All about control; your lives and mine.


Chris Moore April 8, 2010 at 7:18 am

Thank God they’re not wasting all that money on education or homeless shelters or something silly like that.

(Yes, that was sarcasm.)

Actually, I used to make my living building web interfaces for these things.


1984 April 8, 2010 at 8:19 am

what is the cost of each camera, plus the cost of installation including man hours, and how much does one person make per hour for installation … ohhh and who is the scum bag that will take the job to install these cameras? whoever you are, you are a douchebag … one way to stop it or slow it down would be to harass these guys from installing them, let them know what we think of there money hungry attitudes, that would screw over their own people for a quick buck .. I believe that would be much more effective and have a much longer affect than mooning the cameras … If I was some cop whos job was to monitor these cameras, I would welcome the mooning as a source of entertainment … until I was bored then I would just perv on YOUR wife getting dressed or up her crotch as she layed out in her bathing suit … We as the public deserve to be able to monitor what and where is being watched! to ensure these lazy assed desk jockey’s, that are worthless on the streets, are not looking into our homes or up our ladies skirts


bodysurferbob April 9, 2010 at 10:40 am

calling all obceans! do not allow this surveillance camera on our pier to be installed. call your city council man kevin faulconer at 619-236-6622 to complain.


Jason April 10, 2010 at 12:45 am

Another thing to give us all a warm fuzzy is that real-time face recognition software is now and has been in use for close to a decade (maybe longer). It won’t be long until all of these watch towers have this software installed by default – or maybe they already do. Does anyone know? Reminds me of Minority Report, but fact of the matter is that most people in the mainstream are already tracked in everything they do including buying food, gas, using bank/credit cards, the internet, cell phones, you name it. Moreover, it has been proposed that every vehicle have “black boxes” installed “to collect statistics and improve safety.” Another reason is that it would be a means to track how many miles we drive and implement a tax accordingly. Whatever the reason is doesn’t really matter because in the end, we’re being tracked – we have been for several years and will continue to be tracked more aggressively in the future.


Michael Russell April 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm

What if all our police had the black boxes and cameras first, with the information available to the public 24/7? Then we could all see what a good job the police do, how they spend their time on the job and such, to earn those big city pensions.

If every police officer had a web page with their picture, we could recognize our neighborhood cops, just like back in the 1950’s, and they would be our friends again. Right now, they are just a bunch of faceless uniforms, like storm-troopers. It would be better if we knew who they are.


Michael Russell April 10, 2010 at 1:49 pm

I have no problem with the new police surveillance cameras as long as they are all linked to the internet. These are public cameras, in public places, so that all of us can see exactly what the police are looking at. I don’t want them secretly ogling my daughter on the taxpayer dime.

Plus, as a public service we can see the weather, traffic, surf and beach crowd, so that we plan our day more efficiently. By the way, these cameras are all ready installed along Mission Beach and Pacific Beach, but the feed is not available to the public. I wonder if a FOIA request could get that information into the public hands?

Privacy is an illusion in public places, but an imbalance in accountability between the authorities and citizens is the real problem. As long as we can monitor what the police are doing with their power, there really is not a problem. It is only when they have all the power without any accountability that things get dark. Let the sunshine in.


Sunshine April 12, 2010 at 2:43 am

why even bother installing these expensive cameras in the first place? Doesn’t Google Earth, not to mention all the military based satellites lurking out there, already have the capability to see into our daily lives without our permission? Their “spying” isn’t new….only their need to drain our already tapped City Budget. Whoever proposed this camera installation should rethink their priorities. Our own current policy makers are more of a threat than their imagined “off shore misconduct” fear-based delusions. Stop the madness.

Where is the voice of reason that can bring this ridiculous expenditure and unnecessary invasion of our privacy to light?


Michael Russell April 12, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Why bother putting up lifeguard towers, with those expensive personnel staring out of them all the time? It’s for public safety. And relative to the 400+ people getting six-figure salaries on the city-dime, they aren’t all that expensive.

They could be cheaper. We pay hundreds of thousands for the ‘portable police tower’ with air conditioning and 360-degree camera, but you could set the same thing up, with the same quality, for less than $25,000. But the military defense contractors are trying to break into the domestic police market, and San Diego is their test-market. See:


highwayman April 19, 2010 at 6:10 am

wasn’t “skywatch” part of the terminator scenero? ;)


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