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Council Unaware of AI Camera Programs

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By Jorge Casuso

April 19, 2023 -- Two pilot programs using AI-equipped cameras are being launched by City staff without the approval of Councilmembers, some of whom have concerns but generally back the programs.

Most of the Councilmembers reached by the Lookout said they first learned on Friday that AI-equipped cameras will be used at the Main Library and on two Big Blue Buses ("City Tests AI Cameras to Deter Unwanted Behavior," April 17, 2023).

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That's when Transportation Director Edward King emailed an information item to the Councilmembers outlining the programs he informed them "are launching shortly."

"I had never heard of this before tonight," Councilmember Phil Brock said on Monday. "There has been no public process yet and no City Council process."

"We've never had a discussion on that," said Councilmember Oscar de la Torre. "They (staff) are bringing the policies forward. Obviously, I'd prefer to be informed."

Most of the Councilmembers noted that the pilot programs -- which will last for 45 on the buses and for 60 days at the Library -- are being tested courtesy of the vendors free of charge and would need Council approval and a bidding process to continue.

"In both cases, if these technologies prove to be helpful, the City would conduct competitive procurements and come to Council with recommendations," said Councilmember Caroline Torosis.

"We are nowhere near ready for that at this time," Torosis said.

Councilmember Jesse Zwick agreed. "Both are going to be piloted on a limited basis," he said.

Both Zwick and de la Torre said they understand the privacy concerns raised by the pilot programs, especially the five wireless cameras mounted at the Library that will be monitored by the vendor, Netwatch.

According to King's information item, the vendor's trained staff will "engage with intruders" through two loudspeakers placed in "two highly trafficked areas," telling them "to leave the premises immediately or law enforcement will be called."

"Whenever cameras are utilized, I guess there are privacy concerns," said Zwick. "It comes down to how that data will be stored and used.

"I'm certainly attuned to the possibility of Civil Rights and the need to be sensitive," Zwick said.

"Often it also comes down to who is wielding the power behind them (the surveillance systems). I have trust in our democracy."

For de la Torre privacy is an issue that will be highlighted when as many as 50 public kiosks equipped with cameras are placed on sidewalks across the city ("Council Awards Kiosk Contract to Top Bidder," December 12, 2022).

"I don't know if people want that or not," de la Torre said. "We're entering this era where we're being recorded all the time.

"Sometimes the social conditions are ripe for that," he said. referring to growing concerns about crime. "It's a pretty major policy decision."

Councilmembers agreed the surveillance program at the Library can help Santa Monica's short-staffed Police Department fight crime.

"In a city with limited resources, cameras can be a force multiplier," Zwick said.

Said Brock, "What they're trying to do is collect data. What are the alternatives? To have security or police just hanging around?"

Brock noted that a growing number of cities are using proactive video monitoring systems to deter crime and anti-social behavior.

"We're all going to do this. Beverly Hills has two thousand cameras," Brock said, adding that he will be touring their system.

He noted that those who back surveillance systems argue that "you're in a public space, so you don't have a right to privacy anyway."

Less concerning is the pilot program to install automated, AI-powered camera systems on two BBB buses operating on Route 3 and Rapid 3 service on Lincoln Boulevard.

Torosis noted that the program is "implementing recently adopted state legislation" that allows the technology to enforce parking violations in bus lanes and designated transit stops.

"At this point the City is only deploying it on two bus routes and doing nothing more than gathering information to see if deployment of this technology would be beneficial," Torosis said.

"The City will not be taking any enforcement action at this point and this technology is being deployed at no cost to the City."

Zwick said, "I'm fully in favor of it, if it helps with enforcement."

The system includes a "forward-facing context camera and a license plate reading (LPR) camera" and "an antenna on the roof of the bus," according to King's information item.

Santa Monica's Transportation Department agreed to test Hayden AI's system after staff participated in a live on-road demonstration last fall at the California Transit Association (CTA) conference in Ontario, King said.

Staff "later discussed launching a no-cost pilot to assess this technology in BBB’s service area," King wrote in his information item to the Council.

King's item doesn't explain how Netwatch was chosen for the Library program.

According to the company's website, "We pioneered the use of proactive video monitoring (PVM), providing our customers with intelligent remote video monitoring to proactively detect and prevent incidents before they begin."

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