Rapt attention

Sunday, September 10, 2023

It's nobody's business


I was driving to my mailbox this morning when I decided to have a conversation with the rangers for the Wildlands Conservancy. Two of them were working on a camera that records visitors that venture to and from their preserve.

This NGO administers the Santa Margarita River Preserve, one of whose trailheads is at the entrance to the canyon where I live.

From their website:

In 2018, The Wildlands Conservancy acquired five miles of the oak- and sycamore-shaded Santa Margarita River, one of the last free-flowing wild rivers in Southern California and the southernmost range of steelhead trout. This 1,384-acre water-blessed property is part of the vulnerable South Coast Ecoregion that is recognized as one of the Earth’s 25 global hotspots of threatened biodiversity. For several decades the Fallbrook Trail Council has maintained 18 miles of equestrian and hiking trails on this former water district property. The Fallbrook Trails Council and The Wildlands Conservancy are now partners in maintaining this trail, which was voted the number one trail of the best 50 trails in San Diego County. Visitors are often surprised to see so many broad water impoundments along the river that are the industrious work of the California golden beaver.

My question was this; roughly two years ago the Wildlands people installed a camera that not only records information regarding visitors to their trailhead but also ostensibly, to the best of my understanding, grabs the license plate and description of every automobile that comes in and out of the valley where I live.

I asked the rangers this morning if they ever considered the civil liberties questions involved in their bulk recording? This is a private company and even if the collection is a collateral byproduct of a well intentioned goal, do they have a right to know and record who the people of our valley choose to fraternize and congregate with in our domiciles on our public road? Not to mention chronicle our own comings and going?

Now my wife and I do not entertain at our home and rarely if ever have visitors so this is actually an academic question. But it intrigues me that this system was installed without any conversation or buy in from the residents who live here, who have been here in many cases for many more decades than the Wildlands Preserve. And that honestly no one seems to care or consider that it is occurring.

One of the rangers seemed to take umbrage at my inquiry. He said that SMER, another public inholding at the end of our road had had some break ins and that the system helped track the miscreants. He also said that the data was erased after three days. Good. I have to assume that their bulk data collection has been previously shared with law enforcement.

I wrote about data mining a number of years ago on several occasions, back when they started sucking up license plate data in San Diego without probable cause, I will never forget the words of one sergeant, "It is so we have it when you commit crimes in the future." So Orwellian, so much like Philip Dick's Minority ReportPre-crime stuff. See Wake me up if I am late for the police state.

The Union Tribune ran an interesting story today, SANDAG knows where you've been Regional program collects and stores license plate data. It turns out that Sandag is taking pictures of your license plates. Lots of pictures.
'Police vehicles equipped with cameras pointing every direction canvass parking lots and streets, gathering data about the time, date and place individual license plates are spotted.The information gets fed into a database maintained by the San Diego Association of Governments, a transportation and planning organization, cross-referenced with information on stolen vehicles and used to track down the bad guys.The data trove had 32 million data points as of January, with 2 million records added each month.'

As I wrote back in 2014:

So much like the warrantless NSA data mining that Snowden exposed, all of your information is now fair game for the police state, to be used to track you and just in case you may engage in criminality at some future point in time. This is like something from an apocalyptic Philip Dick novel. We are all suspects in an investigation to be named later and the constitution becomes once again seriously diminished.
This hoovering of date in our personal lives without probable cause and without our acquiescence concerns me. Cameras are everywhere, All of these data sucks seem unconstitutional and un American even if the data is merely collateral product in a data pursuit with good intentions. If the government can amass data, whether it face or iris scans, fingerprints, genetic information, location data, library or google search records, they will. And they will never let it go.

I recognize that I might indeed be a minority here, even in my own neighborhood. People might find it a benefit to know who is coming and going and it may indeed solve crimes. But I wonder if they ever consider the civil liberty implications of such recording by a non governmental organization or would even care? 

We have a freedom to assemble and a freedom to associate enumerated in our Constitution and Bill of rights. We can meet privately with whomever we want to in our homes. And I think we have a right to exercise those freedoms without the intrusion of security cameras.

Question authority.


Jon Harwood said...

From a practical viewpoint, it looks like there are cameras everywhere I go. I just assume I am always being observed and recorded anywhere I go. Seems to be a side effect of cheap cameras available to anyone anywhere for any reason.

Actually I am jealous. When cameras were rare and expensive people with photographic skills had something special. Now everyone with a cell is a photographer, a cinema photographer and and if desired and art director and producer too. I am just a regular Joe but now my last illusion of specialness is gone. O alas and lackaday.

Blue Heron said...

Hi Robert,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue.

I agree that the omnipresence of cameras this day and age is a double-edged sword. In some cases it feels intrusive and unnecessary, while under different circumstances it can be true that the presence cameras can help to capture the beauty of a fleeting moment or reveal injustices.

TWC partnered with the Fallbrook Trail Council to install the cameras at Willow Glen earlier this year in response to a series of issues with wildlife poaching and vandalism of the Preserve lands. The cameras are focused on the parking lot and don't have the resolution to collect license plate data. When we have an incident we use the camera to footage to share information with law enforcement. I hope that it's reassuring to know that we are not surveilling the comings and goings of the valley. We elected to use cameras as a means of protecting our property and it's resources.

Please feel free to give me a call if you'd like to discuss this or any other matter more.

All the best, Zach Kantor - Anaya