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BART officials face pushback due to newly proposed security measures

on September 26, 2018

Two months after Nia Wilson’s murder, faded signs and withering flowers still greet commuters entering Oakland’s MacArthur BART station. The 18-year-old was fatally stabbed, and her older sister, Letifah, was also injured in the July 22 attack. Now transit officials are calling for upgraded security measures that they argue will improve safety, although members of some community organizations, including Oakland Privacy and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, are concerned about the privacy of riders and what transit authorities will do with the information that will be collected.

The changes proposed by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officials would make it more difficult for riders to bypass fare gates, would upgrade the agency’s camera system, and implement an information management system capable of video analytics.

The video analytics enhancement, which would be part of what BART officials call a “Physical Security Information Management system,” would be capable of monitoring thousands of simultaneous video streams and recommending responses to BART Police Department dispatchers. The system—originally designed to monitor alarms and sensors—can detect when “normal patterns” are disrupted and alert dispatch. BART officials said that abnormal activity would include things like a person in the trackway, an unattended bag, motion in a restricted area and/or crowd capacity spilling into yellow safety zones near platform edges.

“Some of the technology we currently use is outdated,” BART representative Jim Allison said Tuesday. For example, he said, some of the surveillance cameras are still using analog technology and need to be updated to digital, making it easier to recover data from them. The camera system would cost about $15 million and take a nearly five years to complete, updating camera networks in BART’s stations, parking lots and garages.

A “Security and Safety Action Plan,” which was recently proposed by BART’s general manager and has an initial cost estimate of $28 million, is “primarily to keep people safe,” but will also improve the investigation process when a crime does occur on BART property, Allison said.

The plan would include the installation of video screens showing real time images at stations, an effort to remind riders that the area is under surveillance. The plan also calls for adding emergency call boxes to platforms, increased staffing, banning panhandling in paid access areas,  and launching a public outreach campaign that would give riders tips on how to “ride safe.”

“BART has always been focused on public safety but it’s clear that we must do even more,” Grace Crunican, general manager, said in a statement in August.“The tragic murder of Nia Wilson has deeply saddened everyone at BART as well as the communities we serve. Our riders are demanding that we do more to maintain public safety and this plan offers multiple new initiatives we can immediately begin to roll out.”

By the end of the summer, the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) had awarded BART a grant of about $6.8 million in order to maintain and upgrade its security measures.

BART’s board of directors voted on August 9 to have Crunican prepare contracts to expand the digital camera network and install platform emergency call boxes. Although BART stations already have white courtesy phones that connect to the station agent, these new call boxes would offer more options and allow a quicker connection to dispatch. Each box would have an intercom connected to dispatch and a camera that would activate whenever the intercom button is pushed. This will cost an estimated $5.2 million and could take up to two years to implement.

The remaining sections of the proposal, though, will have to wait until community members have a chance to weigh in, thanks to a unanimous vote by the board of directors on September 13 passing a surveillance equipment ordinance requiring public notice and debate.

This decision came after the ACLU of Northern California, Oakland Privacy, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) San Francisco, and other organizations sent a letter to the board, urging it to allow for public debate before implementing any new policies. “Modern surveillance systems allow for the wholesale collection of information about BART riders and people near BART stations, including information about their location, identity, speech, and race, with newer systems even touting the ability to analyze emotional state,” states one section of the letter. “The suspicionless monitoring of riders chills the very freedom of movement at the core of BART’s service.”

It continues: “The deployment of surveillance without public input and strict safeguards can exacerbate discrimination and police bias, as this technology is often weaponized against people of color.”

Shahid Buttar, director of grassroots advocacy for the Electronic Frontier Foundation–a civil liberties organization based in San Francisco–wrote a similar letter of concern to the BART board of directors. “The security for some can compromise security for others,” Buttar told Oakland North on Wednesday. Dissidents, whistleblowers, and undocumented workers and students could all be put at risk by some of the proposed surveillance measures, he said.

Buttar compares the proposed video monitoring system to similarly controversial plans for Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center, a citywide surveillance center. “Communities should have control,” he said, noting that BART’s ordinance requiring civilian oversight might help bring legitimacy to the board’s security measures. Before any surveillance measures are adopted, he said, robust limits should be put in place for what information can be collected, how long it is retained, in which ways it can be used, who has access to it, and under which circumstances it can be used.

“Obviously, BART is reacting to some of the terrible crimes that have happened, most notably the murder of Nia Wilson at MacArhur station,” said Tracy Rosenberg, a member of Oakland Privacy, a coalition that works to defend privacy rights and enhance oversight regarding the use of surveillance techniques and equipment. But, she added, before agency officials can implement new security measures, they need to be transparent with the public about what the effect on crime is actually going to be and how any data collected will be protected.

“Most data has no relationship to crime and never will,” she said, noting that most images recorded with cameras will be of mundane activities. “What are we doing to protect the data of non-criminal riders of BART?”

This question is especially important to ask, Rosenberg said, because BART has already engaged in surveillance activities that her group worries may have been harmful to riders. After filing an unrelated public records request, Oakland Privacy found out in November, 2017, that license plate readers at BART’s MacArthur station were automatically sending information to theNorthern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), which serves as a regional intelligence fusion center for the Federal Northern District of California. This was happening, Rosenberg said, even though BART’s board’s instructed BART police not to activate the cameras.

Neither the board nor BART police officers realized that the cameras had been activated and had started sending data to the NCRIC until November 6, Allison said. BART police complied with the board’s instruction, he said, adding that it is unclear how or when the cameras were activated and calling it an accident.

The cameras were turned off and uninstalled immediately after BART police realized the system was active, Allison said.

Because the license plate information was being sent to the NCRIC, Rosenberg said she is concerned the information might have been accessed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to get information on undocumented immigrants in the Bay Area. Immigration officials had access to the license plate reader database at NCRIC, she said, but Oakland Privacy hasn’t been able to confirm if any plate information ICE officials requested from the center were taken from the BART cameras.

Even if activating the cameras had been an accident, Rosenberg said, it could have been harmful to community members, especially undocumented individuals who stand the risk of deportation.

“These kinds of accidents should not happen and that is why we’ve been pressuring BART to implement these community forum and transparency policies,” she said.

ACLU officials reacted to the BART board’s vote to delay implementation of new security measures by saying the decision promotes public safety and protects the privacy of BART riders.

“This is a victory for every person who rides BART,” Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney, said in a statement released by the ACLU. “This surveillance ordinance holds BART accountable to the community it serves and gives riders a seat at the table. People should be free to move around the Bay Area without being secretly policed by dangerous surveillance technology.”

Bevan Dufty, BART board member, said that he values transparency and that this decision will help in establish accountability for the board. “Right now the system is just struggling to keep pace with the weekday capacity and the age of our system,” Dufty said, speaking by phone on Wednesday. “I think our riders feel that we don’t see the system that they see.”

But Dufty, who said he’s been “in the trenches” when it comes to BART security and cleanliness, said that he wants the trust and respect of BART riders, which to him means acting with contrition when something goes wrong, like the license plate incident.

“It’s disappointing to me because our values have been around sanctuary and safe transit for individuals,” Dufty previously told KPIX. “They ignored a unanimous board vote not to do that and they did it anyway.”

While about a dozen BART riders told Oakland North last week that they aren’t usually scared to ride BART trains, they said they do think the system could be safer.

After Wilson’s death, Ash Henry, an Oakland resident who rides BART every day, said that the first thing she did was buy some pepper spray. “Now I have a feeling when I ride that you never know who you’re riding next to,” Henry said before leaving the MacArthur station Friday morning.

Henry said that she feels safe on BART about 75 percent of the time. “I’m just more aware that I’m a woman riding BART,” she said, “which is a big deal.”

Aariyana Roberson, who just started riding BART this summer, said that, although she isn’t scared, it does get “sketchy” on BART trains at night.“It’s not super safe,” Roberson said. “There’s a lot of opportunity between stops for anything to happen.” For example, she said, between West Oakland and the Embarcadero, there’s a long period of time before you’re out of the tunnel.

Wilson’s murder was the third fatal attack on BART property in less than a week, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. Just two days following Wilson’s murder, BART officials released crime statistics covering the period between June 2017 and June 2018. During that time, according to BART statistics, there hadn’t been any homicides, but there had been two reported rapes, 152 robberies, and 68 aggravated assaults. There had also been 3,032 property crimes, which include burglary, larceny, auto theft and arson.

For members of organizations like Oakland Privacy, the discussion isn’t about whether or not BART should have security measures in places, but about having community input and disclosing how these security measures will be used.

“What we try to do is setup a process so that, essentially, [BART] has to disclose and ask their riders and the community what they’re comfortable and what they’re not comfortable with,” Rosenberg said. “Nobody wants to be stabbed on the platform and nobody should have to be afraid of that.”

Rosenberg said BART’s plan to upgrade cameras and add more call boxes “sounds reasonable.”

Video analytics, though, she said could mean many different things including the use offacial recognition software—which BART representatives have said they are not seeking despite comments endorsing it from one of its board members earlier this year—and other identification programs. Rosenberg said that facial recognition software can be biased and doesn’t detect as many differences in darker faces and more feminine faces as well as it does white males faces. If police officers were using this information to make decisions when going into a scene, she said, it could cause problems, like misidentifying innocent people as suspects.

The topic will be discussed again during the next BART Board of Directors meeting at Pittsburg City Hall on September 27.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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