Aviva Shen is a journalist in New Orleans. She was previously a senior editor at Think Progress, and has written for The Guardian, Smithsonian, and other outlets.
The city is considering an unprecedented real-time monitoring proposal, in what could be the latest escalation of surveillance trends.
New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison has a message for New Orleans bar-goers: Be good—you’re being watched.
The city council is considering an unprecedented proposal to require any business with a liquor license to install video cameras that feed into a real-time surveillance “command center” monitored 24/7 by law enforcement.
“We want to be able to send a message that if you’re in public spaces, we’re going to be able to catch you if you commit a crime,” Harrison told CityLab. “We have to have the ability to demonstrate to would-be criminals, to would-be terrorists, if you will, that in public spaces we’re going to find them and know who you are.”
To that end, New Orleans is pioneering what appears to be the most expansive surveillance of bars and restaurants in the country. As currently written, the ordinance requires proprietors to purchase and install street-facing cameras that connect to the city’s command center and store the footage for at least two weeks. Businesses found violating any conditions of the liquor license could be required to install the cameras inside as well.
If the city council approves the ordinance, “you couldn’t live a life in New Orleans without being on camera multiple times per day,” said Ethan Ellestad, executive director of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO).
In a survey of other municipal laws, MaCCNO found that no other cities in the U.S. require all businesses with a liquor license to participate in a real-time surveillance network.
Still, this unique proposal follows a broader trend of cities increasingly expanding the geographic scope of local video surveillance in the name of public safety. Cities from New York to Fresno have developed sophisticated real-time surveillance software that merges city camera networks with predictive policing software to try to ascertain the likelihood individuals will commit a crime. New Orleans plans to eventually expand the monitoring center to “include an intelligent threat analytics platform that looks for specific kinds of threats and integrates remote-sensing technology,” according to the mayor’s public safety plan.
The pervasiveness of local surveillance means that most Americans are unwittingly caught on camera multiple times a day, starting the moment they leave their homes. The average city-dweller may encounter 75 cameras per day, according to estimates based on data in New York City and Chicago.
Cities spend millions of dollars every year to install and update surveillance tech, yet there’s limited evidence about whether these extensive networks achieve their stated goals. In a letter to the city council, New Orleans’ independent police monitor noted that studies of other cities’ surveillance systems have found no significant reduction in crime. Even the most favorable reports “could not conclusively prove that the presence of surveillance cameras always deters crime,” the letter said. London, the second-most-surveilled city in the world, has seen virtually no change in its crime rate since its cameras were installed in the 1980s.
Harrison, the police superintendent, dismissed the police monitor’s letter as “lacking context.”
“You’re not able to know what crimes didn’t happen and what you’re preventing,” he said. “And so with the criminological theoretical perspective of not knowing what didn’t happen, there’s no way to authenticate that statement.”
When asked by CityLab, Harrison and Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness Director Aaron Miller maintained it was too early to conclude if surveillance does reduce crime. But, said Harrison: “Certainly as we bring out more cameras we feel confident that we will be able to identify perpetrators when they commit crimes.”
Why do cities keep pouring money into these systems if they don’t see results? Dave Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues they’re getting hoodwinked by purveyors of “surveillance snake oil.”
“Law enforcement gets dazzled by shiny objects,” he said. “Vendors will come in and promise them that the technology is going to solve all the public safety problems and it just doesn’t. We’re seeing them develop all of these things creating more information than they could possibly process and then it doesn’t actually end up being that useful.”
New Orleans’ real-time command center opened its doors in November 2017 to monitor feeds from city-owned cameras and license plate readers. But the pending ordinance would dramatically expand the center’s reach to incorporate more than 1,500 retailers with liquor licenses in New Orleans, including grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, music venues, restaurants, and bars. As the proposed ordinance currently stands, retailers would need to pay for their own cameras and cloud storage. Footage will be saved for at least two weeks, with no maximum time limit.
Some other cities do require that businesses install cameras, often specifically targeting bars, late-night establishments, pawn shops, and gun dealers. But proprietors control their own footage, with the ability to choose what to hand over to the police in the event of a crime. Officers may have to give a reason why they need the footage, or even secure a warrant. The real-time network skips that process.
“It’s a difference between whether they’re surveilling because a crime has occurred or they’re just surveilling everyone in New Orleans in case maybe one day they commit a crime,” Maass said.
New Orleans’ strategy of enlisting private businesses in real-time government surveillance raises a particular concern: that vulnerable communities cannot congregate without the fear of being monitored. LGBTQ bars that bill themselves as safe spaces would be required to record comings and goings. “You’ve essentially given the police the ability to make note on everyone who is in the LGBT community,” said Maass.
Immigrant rights groups worry that footage will be shared with the New Orleans police department’s federal partners in an administration that’s made detention and deportation a top priority. Many undocumented immigrants in New Orleans are service workers who would be filmed every day.
“If you approve this camera system...I will not feel safe going to work or leaving my children at school,” Ilda, an undocumented activist with the Congress of Day Laborers, wrote in a statement to the city council.
The city council is scheduled to vote on the proposal on March 8, though they have deferred it multiple times amid the growing opposition.
Other cities will be watching New Orleans closely if it successfully passes the ordinance. San Francisco attempted to instate a similar camera requirement for liquor licenses in 2011, though that proposal would not have required businesses to participate in a real-time centralized system. The blowback from the LGBTQ community killed the proposal and forced the police department to specify that officers could only request footage as evidence in a criminal investigation.
Detroit is moving toward a similar requirement for all businesses open after 10 p.m. Currently, businesses can opt in to Detroit’s Project Green Light, a real-time surveillance system. Detroit offers a pretty strong incentive to join: Businesses that link up cameras to the centralized system are given special priority for emergency responders, cutting down 911 call response times from an hour to a few minutes. But Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan plans to ask the city council to mandate participation later this year.
Out in public
New Orleans city officials argue privacy concerns are not relevant to a policy governing public spaces.
“There is no expectation of privacy on a public street,” Harrison said. “Nowhere in America or in the world is there the expectation of privacy out in the public.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has also invoked this philosophy, arguing that people should conduct themselves with the expectation they will be caught on camera. "If you’re out in public, it is highly likely in this day and age you’re going to be filmed by some camera or somebody holding a phone," he told the New Orleans Advocate in November.
But Ellestad rejected the analogy between surveillance cameras and civilians with phones. “Someone taking footage of you on a smartphone outside a bar is not the same as the FBI having access to a camera that can record 24 hours 7 days a week,” he said.
Though the real-time command center is monitored 24/7, city officials insist that mass surveillance is not the objective. The software only pulls up live feeds when a crime has been reported in the area, according to Harrison. “This was not designed to enforce any kind of immigration or to do any kind of administrative function or to surveil people,” he said. “We’re not using this to deal with things that don’t rise to violent crimes on our streets.”
Miller told CityLab the system has built-in protections against abuse and hacking. Video technicians will be monitored as they log into the system and view live feeds, for example. The cameras have no audio capabilities, and there are no current plans to use facial recognition technology.
Still, civil rights groups have raised the concern that these safeguards are set by internal policy with no independent oversight or regulation. And it’s not clear who will have access to the footage that gets collected and stored.
Ellestad points out many cities with surveillance networks have set up specific restrictions on how the data can be used and who may access it. Even some that do not have widespread surveillance systems are starting to enact laws and policies to shield citizens’ data, recognizing the risks of sharing information with federal law enforcement. New Orleans has no such protections in place.
Law enforcement officials want people to know they’re being watched when they go out. The new city-owned cameras have bright, flashing lights to constantly remind passersby of their presence. Harrison hopes these reminders will shift “the culture of criminality in this city” to a “culture that deters crime.”
But Ellestad worries this culture shift will irreparably damage what makes the city special, from second line parades to neighborhood cookouts. “So much of New Orleans culture takes place in the public space,” he said. “The culture is about being out in public and reclaiming public space.”