You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

In Tampa, a Citizen-Made Map Lets You Watch the Watchers

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, August 27 2012

Tampa Web developer Jon Gales has mapped the city's new network of downtown surveillence cameras

With the recent launch of RNCCTv, an HTML 5 map of a new network of surveillance cameras installed by Tampa's police in preparation for the Republican National Convention, city residents now have a slightly clearer picture of how (or at least where) they're being watched by law enforcement authorities.

RNCCTV uses scripts from Leaflet, data from Open Street Map and citizen reporting by Jon Gales himself to reveal to the public where exactly the Tampa police have placed its $2 million network of security cameras. The site provides a bird's eye view of the location of the cameras in downtown Tampa, but with permission, it can use the location of smartphone owners in downtown Tampa to show them where the nearest camera is located.

The map is an interesting application of HTML 5, but it's also a more interesting demonstration of how evolving technologies can empower citizens to become more aware of our encroaching surveillance society.

Gales himself lives in downtown Tampa. It was on his daily walks to work in July when he first noticed the cameras being installed by contractors. He says that the city never had to hold hearings about the installation of the cameras because they are being funded through a $50 million federal grant that the city received to prepare for the convention. That left him wondering what would happen after the convention. Would the cameras stay up? What would happen with the footage? What is the range of the cameras? Could they zoom in to spy on him in his apartment?

Gales wrote to Mayor Bob Buckhorn to find out more, but heard nothing back. Then he wrote to his city councilman Frank Reddick, who forwarded the query to the Tampa police department. Gales hasn't heard back from them, but in response to a query from techPresident, Andrea Davis, the Tampa Police Department's assistant public information officer, said that there have been "no decisions on what will happen to the cameras after the RNC. It will go before City Council."

For his part, Gales found the RFP for the network of cameras and has posted the technical details on the RNCCTV web site. He reports that the high-definition footage from the surveillance cameras will be stored on Blu-Ray discs for four years, and that there's some sort of software associated with the system that boasts that it can detect "unusual activity." There's not an enormous amount of detail beyond that.

Asked whether he objects to the presence of the cameras, Gales says: "not specifically for the convention, but after the convention very much so.

"I can see one of them from my bedroom window, and they can see me. We didn't have any problems that warranted these cameras beforehand -- this is specific to the RNC -- and I don't think we need it afterwards. To me it's a privacy invasion. The camera can move -- maybe it can zoom up on my condo building -- I have no way of knowing. It has the potential to do so."

Gales wanted to make his fellow residents aware of the network, and he hopes that the city council will have a hearing about the cameras after the convention.

While many people aren't too worried about the ubiquitous presence of security cameras, those who've contemplated the nature of that surveillance think that it's antithetical to a free society: People change their behaviors when they know that they're always being watched. Think about how you behave when you know there's a camera trained on you in an elevator, for example.

Perhaps that's what the Tampa Police Department was going for: Crowd control. As this article notes, local law enforcement authorities took note of the unrest that happened in St. Paul, Minn., in 2008 at the last Republican National Convention.

At least one resident who was out protesting Monday said that he's not particularly concerned -- that he's resigned to the reality of a "police state." And he doesn't plan on asking the city council to take the cameras down.

"This isn't just the city of Tampa," said 25-year-old Jared Hamil, a spokesman for the Coalition to March on the RNC on Monday. "This is the entire world. We're living in an age where political repression and surveillance and a police state has emerged. People are being watched all the time. And we're not trying to hide anything: We're on the streets for a reason. I myself have the same demands as anyone else, and we have nowhere else to go."

Hamil said that a group of 1,000-1,500 members of the coalition had peacefully marched though Tampa on Monday. Their demands: Affordable healthcare and education, "equality and peace."