Communication rights, and
especially local and regional work to cement them at home, often gets
overlooked, but it is key to so many struggles for health, safety, and
MA has been here for 38 years, always on one kind of edge or another, and we want there to be a year 39. Please join us.
do we protect the right to dissent? Crackdowns on journalists,
whistleblowers and activists are legion as a toxic combination of greedy
telecoms and an unaccountable government try to plug every remaining
space for free expression and organizing. They won't rest until the
Internet is a toll road for big spenders, and a spy net for the rest of
the corporations that run the government won’t help dismantle their own
influence. The system that lulls us into complacency as our human
rights get whittled away wants us doing busy work, not challenging them.
Keeping the challenges going, steady and strong and right here at home
in California where we live and work together, that can only be
supported by you. Media Alliance will keep lighting the fire. With your
The arc of justice is realized by claiming the space to create alternate narratives.
got some great gifts for you, a 30% discount off the mind-bending
titles from MIT Press, including Low Power To The People, the chronicle
of the pirate radio movement. Local filmmaker Donna Lee's video story of
blogger Josh Wolf's 226 day stay in federal prison to protect his
videos, a crucial moment in the history of citizen journalism and
Chinook Book, a modern-day coupon book featuring discounts and gifts at
local sustainable Bay Area businesses to help you really buy local.
A Review of American Daydream by Margot Eve Pepper
American Day Dream is situated in San Francisco and embedded in the things we love about the Bay Area, but also lodged in the rear corner of our minds that hasn't forgotten the Snowden revelations of June 2013. Or Cointelpro. Or every bit of sickening evidence that we are less free than we think.
In the long tradition of dystopian science fiction, but imbued with a humane and strongly feminist tilt, American Day Dream grabs hold of the red pill/blue pill dilemma of Hollywood's Matrix, but without all the futuristic shiny toys.
What if, right here and right now and right down the block, everything we see and do and own, isn't real? Job, home and friends are all a carefully planted illusion to keep us circling a hamster wheel for a social order running for the benefit of others.
In American Day Dream, the gadgets we love don't connect us to humanity. They are the tool that traps us into dreams and prevents us from seeing our own imprisonment.
The novel addresses the price of looking up from the screen into the void. What would you say to the person who tells you reality isn't real? Would you love them or hate them, or both at the same time?
The protagonist, a Marin-residing graphic designer with a seemingly cushy job at a biotech firm in downtown SF, temporarily breaks his circuits and faces a dilemma: remember that crack in the fabric of appearances or forget it as quickly as he can.
As he walks the road to choosing frightening reality or comforting dream world, the designer ponders who he used to be before his cushy condo, how friends, family and acquaintances reconcile their own illusions and what life might be like outside the penal colony.
And he meets a woman.
American Day Dream asks us to consider the joys, and the dangers, of authentic existence when the human experience isn't what we thought it was. When the price of the little compromises is more expensive than we ever imagined and everything we thought was true about life, really wasn't.
There is still a choice to be made in the world of American Day Dream, but time is running out on the dreamers. Jailbreaking isn't just for i-phones. It's for all of us before there is nothing left but pretty trappings on top of a penal colony.
In a society where we are being watched more than we can fully grasp, the distance between American Day Dream's Bay Area and our own is shrinking.
It's a small step between dawn to dusk surveillance and planting us in a customized-just-for-us existence to meet all of our needs as incarcerated worker bees.
American Day Dream makes that leap and then paints the picture of what the hesitant walk along the road of resistance might look like - without the superpowers of Neo - for just a guy and a girl in Northern California.
Posted by Alfredo Lopez on August 4th, 2015 MayFirst/PeopleLink
Attackers continued their assault on May First/People Link operations Monday evening shutting down the organization's website at https://mayfirst.org. All other services continue operating.
The Denial of Service attack targeted the website but, as collateral
damage, much of May First's hosting system was paralyzed for a short
time about 11:00 pmMonday evening. May First technologists restored all services except May First's own website, the specific target, by 11:30 pm.
The attack follows several days of Denial of Service attacks on May
First servers, targeting specifically May First member the National
Network of Abortion Funds whose website, http://fundabortionnow.org
was down for almost a day last week. That attack appears to have been
part of the campaign aimed at the pro-choice movement which included the
attacks last week on Planned Parenthood and various pro-choice
Today's action is the first time the attackers have targeted the May First/People Link website specifically.
"We consider our organization attacked when one of our members is
targeted so we've been under attack for several days now," according of
Jamie McClelland, MF/PL Leadership Committee member. "But the targeting
of our website means that these people are not just focusing on the
issue of abortion or trying to repress communication about it but
punishing an organization that allows that communication. This isn't
about choice specifically, this is about May First/People Link and,
because of who we are, it's about an entire movement in two countries."
Technologists continue working to return the website to service. No other services are affected at this time.
May First/People Link is a political progressive membership organization
specializing in Internet work and the sharing of services with most
members in the United States and Mexico. It is the largest organization
of its kind in either country.
Earlier this month, the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) issued a request
for comments on how consumers are being charged for video-related
services, the notice they are given before these costs appear on
their monthly cable bill and whether these fees cause consumers to
pay higher prices than the company’s advertised rates for monthly
service. The FCC has always had jurisdiction over how common
carriers, broadcast, wireless, satellite, cable companies and other
telecom entities address consumer interests in their business
According to the FCC
website, through the Consumer Policy division, they are “…tasked
with issuing orders to resolve complaints about unauthorized changes
in local telecommunication providers (slamming); conducting
rulemakings on slamming, truth-in-billing telemarketing and fax
advertising; and monitoring informal inquiries and complaints to
identify trends that affect consumers.” Unfortunately, many
advocates believe that the focus on consumers has been sidelined
since the passage of The
1996 Telecommunications Act. While the act spurred innovative
platforms for video distribution and creative content for internet
users, it was to the detriment of cable subscribers who realized no
real benefits, and instead have experienced nearly two decades of
limited choices for service, rising monthly prices and deteriorating
customer service. With consolidation happening at a breakneck speed
in the cable and broadband markets, it is time that the focus of our
21st century video market policy-making process be placed squarely on
the protection of the consumer.
For this reason, Media Alliance
applauds the FCC’s undertaking to augment their next video
competition report with detailed pricing data and information through
their comment process. We have long advocated for increased
transparency when it comes to the billing practices of pay-TV and
broadband providers and are further encouraged that the FCC’s
action is not an isolated incident.
Washington, D.C. are increasingly losing their patience with the
unscrupulous practices of the pay-TV industry and are calling for
inquiries with the interest of consumers in mind. Last
year, Senator McCaskill asked probing questions of cable providers
who experienced first-hand how cable operators have overcharged and
misled consumers with complicated fee structures and surcharges.
Time and time again, McCaskill has sought to bring accountability to
the pay-TV industry by calling for legislative hearings around cable
The momentum continued with a letter
on July 9 from Senators Al Franken (D-MN), Ed Markey (D-MA), Bernie
Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) calling for the FCC to
collect detailed pricing data on broadband and cable services on a
state-by-state basis and comparatively in rural versus urban areas.
Their letter also recognizes the lack of competition in the pay-TV
industry citing that fact that only “37 percent of Americans have
more than one option for high-speed broadband providers.” The
senators declared that a lack of competitive choices and a
marketplace that continues to move toward more consolidation has left
Americans with “de facto telecommunications monopolies” across
the nation. These are factors that need to be addressed at a granular
level by federal regulators.
The FCC’s action to collect broadband
and pay-TV pricing data will go a long way in helping consumers
better understand exactly what it is they are paying for in their
monthly bills. The pay-TV companies have this information. We
simply need our leaders in Washington D.C. to ask the right questions
so that regulators can then deconstruct the fees, surcharges,
equipment rentals and other miscellaneous costs.
Thanks to leaders in the nation’s
capital, we are taking the first step towards creating greater
pricing and billing transparency for consumers of pay-TV and/or
Internet subscription services in America.
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on July 22nd, 2015 Media Alliance
The Media Alliance 2015 Northern California Press List is out!
The 2015 Northern California Press List provides 1200+ media
contacts in an easy-to-manipulate Excel spreadsheet, including
daily/weekly newspapers, televison and radio stations, hyperlocal news
websites, and selected national alternative press.
Media Alliance produces this community press list to help nonprofits
and activists reach the media consistently without having to pay the
prohibitive prices charged by commercial public relations efforts.
Pair your press list with a Media How To Guide, if you haven't already, to get everything you need to know for low-cost high-impact guerilla publicity.
The press list retails for $50 (discounted for MA members) so make sure to let people know about it who could benefit from the resource.
Our new telephone number as of May 4, 2015 will be (415) 746-9475. ED Tracy Rosenberg can also be reached directly via mobile phone at 510-684-6853, which is unchanged.
The good news: The new space will provide the classroom, workshop and event space that Media Alliance has been missing in Oakland, contained within a new vibrant art space with lots of cross-fertilization and fun, creative things going on.
Being a part of the community will allow us to permanently lower our rent while increasing our physical capacity in a long-term secure space dedicated to art and social justice, freeing us from the commercial real estate market and the exploding costs in our adopted Oakland home.
It was a difficult decision to leave Oakland, a city MA has grown to love after the forced exodus from San Francisco in 2005, but the long-term security and stability of the nonprofit in today's always-challenging financial conditions was our first priority. Media Alliance intends to continue robust participation in public policy throughout the Bay Area, but especially on both sides of the Bay, which are both our professional and personal homes.
There will be a little moving upheaval during the last week of April and first week of May, but bear with us and we'll do our best to be fully up and running as quickly as possible.
And stay tuned for classes and events. We've heard you these past few years about wanting more of that, and this new office is designed with more public events and workshops in mind.
Thank you for your support and sharing the excitement of this move with us. Any helping hands in the last week of April for the schlepping of boxes are very very welcome.
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on June 5th, 2015 Media Alliance
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) dealt a blow to cable regulation when Chair Tom Wheeler declined to join democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel in dropping the presumption of effective cable competition in most cities and counties.
The presumption means that the burden of proof to assert that cable competition is insufficient falls on city and state governments who must mount a case to prove their point. Failing a monumental effort on their part, federal regulators will presume that effective cable competition exists.
Clyburn and Rosenworcel argued that "streamlining" should not take the form of an expedited process to avoid oversight and accused the agency of racing past the statutory requirements and providing such broad relief to cable companies as to increase burdens on local franchising authorities and potentially result in price increases for consumers.
However, FCC chair Tom Wheeler voted in favor of the presumption and it passed the commission on a 3-2 vote.
Media Alliance agrees with Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel and hails them for their attempts to preserve oversight by franchising authorities and not streamline away local cable regulation.
Below is the public interest letter sent by several organizations including MA asking the FCC not to presume effective cable competition.
This video produced by the Champaign-Urbana Independent Media Center and the Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice exposes the actions of phone service provider
Securus Technologies and the Illinois Department of Corrections in
gouging nearly $12 million a year from the families of the incarcerated
from over-priced phone call.
Sign the petition to encourage the FCC to finish reforming the prison phone call system and cap phone rates for all kinds of phone calls for good.
Nathalie Lawhead is the creator of Tetrageddon Games, an open
source freeware arcade. Having just coming off her Nuovo Award winning
turn at the 2015 Game Developers Conference, Nathalie spoke with Kevin Robinson about her site, being an award winning game developer, and working in the gaming industry.
Kevin Robinson: How have things been since your Nuovo Award at GDC, has anything changed?
Nathalie Lawhead: I would say a lot more confidence
in what I’m doing. I’m still kind of blown away about that, I did not
expect that. Just being a finalist was huge. Winning was amazing.
For anybody creative, confidence in what you’re doing and the risk of
starting your own business is the biggest battle, so that was a really
big deal for
KR: Tell us about Tetrageddon Games
NL: It’s focused on the humor and satire of online
life, kind of like a parody of digital reality. I like to say it’s like
if Monty Python made games. It’s completely random and absurd. The
game is constantly changing is the theme.
KR: How long have you been involved in gaming and what got you started?
NL: I first started out as a net artist and people
liked what I was doing and they started calling what I was doing
“games”. At first I hated the title because it brought in all kinds of
assumptions from people playing it; “What am I supposed to do?”, “What
is this?”, “This game makes no sense”.
KR: Do you think people have preconceived notions of what a game is?
NL: I think they used to have more conservative
views. A game had to give you a mission, you had to have a goal, you
had to be asked to do certain things. Now there’s even a term called
“alt games”. It’s so cool that people are willing to create new labels.
Games are transitioning to be seen as art.
KR: Did you play video games as a child?
NL: I did play DOS games alot, early PC games. Chopper
Commandos, Doom, Quake 2, I was into first person shooters. My fondest
memories was playing the early DOS games where you played on the actual
floppy disc. I loved that.
KR: Where’d the name AlienMelon, as you are also known as, come from?
NL: I started doing web development and I choose a
name that started with an A, because when you look up directories
that’s what comes up first and also I like calling myself an alien. I
like alien invasion and end of the world scenarios so it kind of made
KR: You’re a post-apocalyptic sci-fi fan. What are some of you favorite films in that genre?
NL: I like the one that Tim Burton made, Mars Attacks!
KR: On other note, you being a woman in the industry, what’s that like? Have you thought about that or not?
something you can’t ignore. You do encounter a lot of sexism, but I
think less than ever now. People are willing to speak up and you have
men supporting women too and that makes a massive difference. I
remember there was a site called Flash Goddess that got a lot of very
sexist replies and that’s when I first started thinking there’s a real
problem in our culture. For better or for worse with this whole Gamergate thing it brought the attention and people are willing to engage in this conversation and start making changes.
KR: Did you feel comfortable and supported at GDC?
NL: Yea, it’s
interesting when I was working in the game industry I got a lot of
sexism, but with the indie community I haven’t encountered any of that.
The fact that I’m a woman isn’t even brought up unless it’s in a
KR: Any advice that you would give to any upcoming female game designers or developers?
NL: Your first game
probably won’t be any good and it doesn’t even have to be playable, just
start doing it. It’s like a muscle you exercise and you become better
and better as you go.
KR: What’s next on the horizon for you?
NL: I got an opportunity to put it on Steam now, so
I’m working on getting a Steam version out there. I think that’s going
to be a really big deal for me. I’m also trying to get it on
Most of all it speaks poorly of our cultural and democratic priorities. Billions are spent on media that sell and influence,
producing messages that serve vested political and commercial
interests — yet the room clears out fast when the conversation turns to
the topic of paying for public-interest journalism.
Indeed, for all the declamations and examinations
of journalism’s importance to our democracy, actually funding its
noncommercial, public-interest practice is one of the lowest priorities
of the charitable sector — inclusive of major and individual
lack of subsidy has crippled public-interest journalism, which is not
competitive in the commercial attention economy, and not easily or
ethically monetized, particularly at the local level.
good news is that such harsh conditions have produced a tough strain of
nonprofit survivors. These organizations — members, for example, of the Media Consortium or the Institute for Nonprofit News — are drought tolerant. They take root in niches and keep blooming.
organizational terms, they’re high-achieving, efficient, networked and
media savvy. Their potential as engines of public-interest information
is off the charts.
opportunity and mission they represent has not yet been fully recognized
and embraced across the spectrum of philanthropy.
The sap may be rising for the new crop of news nonprofits — but a garden will not grow unless you water it.
today’s parsimonious funding economy, that means infrastructure for new
news nonprofits is rudimentary, newsrooms operate on shoestring
budgets, founders heroically take on operations as well as editorial
roles, and their ventures only thrive relative to their ability to
sacrifice and work for free.
dedication is beyond question, as is the lack of support. Let’s look at
the numbers for a better sense of journalism’s low position in the
current funding ecosystem.
Journalism as a subset of media funding
Up-to-date numbers for journalism philanthropy are elusive. A good benchmark comes via a Foundation Center report that tracked $1.86 billion in grants of $10,000 or more to “media” projects of all sorts in the United States from 2009 and 2011.
That alone, however, did not necessarily add up to more money for news production.
that sum, 55 percent — about $1.02 billion — went to developing “media
platforms” across the Internet, broadcast, film and video, TV, mobile,
production (and training) received about half that — $527 million,
accounting for 22 percent of all media grantmaking during the three-year
period under scrutiny.
Journalism’s position in the individual-giving spectrum
Americans gave $335.17 billion to charity in 2013, according to Giving
USA, the majority of which went to religious organizations ($105.3
billion) followed by education ($52.07 billion) and human services
media are are handily adapting to the information economy and
developing all sorts of marketing and revenue streams. The philanthropic
sector remains enormously wealthy. And individual giving remains a deep
and largely untapped wellspring.
nonprofit journalism — and specifically public-interest news production
in communities that lack it — remains a neglected, and even
is the imagination, the conscience, the commitment and the will to
strengthen this emerging, and desperately needed, charitable sector?
Private Thoughts is a new privacy series of short videos on surveillance and
privacy from Restore the Fourth SF Bay Area. On UASI (Urban Areas Security Initiative) and fusion centers and on federal and state level privacy legislation including the Surveillance State Repeal Act, CAL-ECPA and SB 34 and SB 741, which are transparency rules for the use of automated license plate readers and cell phone stingrays.
Posted by on April 3rd, 2015 Media Alliance and Common Cause
n 2014, the term “net neutrality” became a household word as media titans battled over two versions of the Internet, one a participatory open network and the other a pay-to-play walled garden.
The open Internet won, in one of the biggest public interest victories of the last decade.
What happened, will it stick, and where do we go from here to keep building a 21st century cyberspace that will advance economic growth, equality, creativity and social justice?
Hear from activists and experts on the inside of the net neutrality campaign and find out about local efforts to keep up the momentum including municipal and community broadband, stopping Internet surveillance, and preventing more media consolidation.
This interactive workshop for high school and college students will make you think about the Internet you use everyday in a different way and give you the skinny on how you can be a part of building the Internet future at your school.
Free to high school, community college and 4-year college students in the Bay Area and faculty. Others asked to pay a nominal fee to attend.
Thoughts is a new privacy series of short videos on surveillance and
privacy from Restore the Fourth SF Bay Area. On UASI (Urban Areas Security Initiative) and
fusion centers and on federal and state level privacy legislation including the Surveillance State Repeal Act, CAL-ECPA and SB 34 and SB 741, which are transparency rules for the use of automated license plate readers and cell phone stingrays.
A public records request by Ars Technicahas secured the entire City of Oakland dataset from 33 automatic license plate readers installed about the city: 4.6 million reads of over 1.1 million unique plates between December
23, 2010 and May 31, 2014. The dataset is likely one of the largest ever
publicly released in the United States—perhaps in the world.
*State Senator Jerry Hill has introduced SB 34 to establish standards for the use and handling of ALPR datasets. It goes to the Senate Transportation committee on April 7th. Media Alliance is an endorser of the bill. See our letter of support below.
Cyrus Farivar's coverage
If you have driven in Oakland any time in the last few years, chances
are good that the cops know where you’ve been, thanks to their 33
automated license plate readers (LPRs).
Now Ars knows too.
In response to a public records request, we obtained the entire LPR
dataset of the Oakland Police Department (OPD), including more than 4.6
million reads of over 1.1 million unique plates between December 23,
2010 and May 31, 2014. The dataset is likely one of the largest ever
publicly released in the United States—perhaps in the world.
After analyzing this data with a custom-built visualization tool, Ars
can definitively demonstrate the data's revelatory potential. Anyone in
possession of enough data can often—but not always—make educated
guesses about a target’s home or workplace, particularly when someone’s
movements are consistent (as with a regular commute).
For instance, during a meeting with an Oakland city council member,
Ars was able to accurately guess the block where the council member
lives after less than a minute of research using his license plate data.
Similarly, while "working" at an Oakland bar mere blocks from Oakland
police headquarters, we ran a plate from a car parked in the bar's
driveway through our tool. The plate had been read 48 times over two
years in two small clusters: one near the bar and a much larger cluster
24 blocks north in a residential area—likely the driver's home.
“Where someone goes can reveal a great deal about how he chooses to live his life," Catherine Crump, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told Ars. "Do they park regularly outside the Lighthouse Mosque during times of worship? They’re probably Muslim. Can a car be found outside Beer Revolution a great number of times? May be a craft beer enthusiast—although possibly with a drinking problem."
In August 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic
Frontier Foundation lost a lawsuit to compel the Los Angeles Police
Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to hand over a mere
week’s worth of all LPR data. That case is now on appeal.
In Oakland, OPD's current LPR dataset shows only a few data points
for most vehicles. But there are exceptions—such as the car seen 459
times over two years on a certain block of Chabot Road, east of the
Rockridge BART station (one of the city’s richer areas). As Oakland and
cities like it deploy more LPR cameras, such datasets could quickly grow
“Project forward to a world where LPR technology is cheap and they
can be mounted on every police car and posted at every traffic light,"
said Crump. "Do you think that anyone with a badge should be able to
search through that data at their discretion? If not, then you should
support restrictions on how long law enforcement agents can store this
data, and who can access it, and under what circumstances.”
One car we found turned up in a cluster here at 25th St. and Martin
Luther King Jr. Way, which we assume is this person's residence.
Specialized LPR cameras mounted in fixed locations or on police cars
typically scan passing license plates using optical character
recognition technology, checking each plate against a "hot list" of
stolen or wanted vehicles. The devices can read up to 60 plates per
second and typically record the date, time, and GPS location of any
plates—hot or not. (There have been incidents where LPR misreads have
led to dangerous confrontations.) Some cities have even mounted
such cameras at their city borders, monitoring who comes in and out,
including the wealthy city of Piedmont, California, which is totally
surrounded by Oakland.
LPR collection began in Oakland back in 2006, and an early OPD
analysis showed that the overwhelming majority of the data collected was
not a “hit.” In April 2008, the OPD reported
to the city council that after using just four LPR units for 16 months,
it had read 793,273 plates and had 2,012 hits—a “hit rate” of 0.2
percent. In other words, nearly all of the data collected by an LPR
system concerns people not currently under suspicion.
Despite this, in that same report,
then-OPD Deputy Chief Dave Kozicki (who has since retired) dubbed the
LPR setup an “overwhelming success.” Today, OPD's LPR hit rate has
fallen slightly, to just 0.16 percent.
In addition to LPR data, Ars obtained a list of OPD vehicles and
found that the most frequently seen one is plate number 1275287, a 2007
Crown Victoria marked patrol car. Between January 15, 2012 and May 31,
2014, the OPD scanned that vehicle 879 times all over town, primarily in
the downtown and North Oakland areas. In fact, nearly all of the 100
most frequently seen cars were other OPD vehicles scanned several
hundred times each.
Law enforcement policies vary widely
as to how long LPR information can be stored. In California, the
wealthy Silicon Valley city of Menlo Park (home to Facebook) retains
data for just 30 days. By contrast, the Los Angeles Police Department
(LAPD) retains data for two years.
Neither the Oakland City Council nor the OPD has ever imposed a
formal data retention limit, though OPD has deleted older LPR data as
needed to make room for newer data. As LPR devices and storage prices
continue to fall, it's likely the volume and rate of such data
collection will continue to rise, and its retention time can become
“If I’m law enforcement, I would keep it forever,” Brian Owsley,
a former federal judge turned law professor at Indiana Tech, told Ars.
“That’s the privacy advocates’ concern is that this stuff goes into a
database—gigabytes are essentially free now—and this stuff stays
There's no evidence that the OPD has abused its database. But absent
any strict controls, auditing, or even basic guidelines, it’s hard to
know what might or might not have been done.
make sense of the LPR data—which was originally provided in 18 separate
Excel spreadsheet files with hundreds of thousands of lines each—Ars
hired Mike Tahani, a Bay
Area data visualization specialist. Tahani created a simple tool
allowing us to search any given plate and plot the locations on a map.
We did not use the data for any purpose beyond our journalistic
attempt to understand what such a large license plate reader dataset
reveals. While OPD and other law enforcement agencies have the ability
to match a given plate with registration records from the Department of
Motor Vehicles and the National Crime Information Center,
revealing a car's owner, Ars does not. In cases where we searched a
known individual's plates, we did so only with their explicit consent.
When shown data on their own movements, local residents had widely varying reactions.
“Doesn’t bother me personally,” said Jon Kaufman, an Oakland resident. “I have nothing to hide.”
a physicist who works at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,
told Ars that he didn’t know that OPD even had LPRs. With his
permission, we ran his plate and showed him a map of the five instances
where a camera had captured his car, guessing that they were near where
he lived or worked. Matis replied by e-mail: “You are correct, they are
places that I and my wife go all the time.”
Matis wasn't worried about OPD capturing such data, but he was less comfortable knowing that the data was released to the media.
“If anyone can get this information, that’s getting into Big
Brother,” he told Ars. “If I was trying to look at what my spouse is
doing, [I could]. To me, that is something that is kind of scary. Why do
they allow people to release this without a law enforcement reason?
Searching it or accessing the information should require a warrant.”
Matis immediately fired off an e-mail to Dan Kalb, his city council member:
Do you know why Oakland is spying on me and my wife? We haven't done anything too radical or illegal.
I gave my license plate to a journalist and he found my wife's and my
car in their database. One of the locations is right near our house.
The astounding thing about this information is that anyone, and I
mean anyone, can get this information. Some of the information is more
than two years old.
I can see lawyers using this information for lawsuits. I can check
where my wife is located. Car companies can see my habits. Insurance
companies can check up on their clients. We have entered the world of 1984 with the difference that anyone can get the information.
Ars contacted every member of the Oakland City Council, including newly elected mayor Libby Schaaf, to show them the Oakland LPR data. Dan Kalb,
the recipient of Matis' e-mail, was the only council member who agreed
to meet. (Neither Mayor Schaaf nor the recently departed mayor, Jean
Quan, responded to requests for an interview.) Kalb represents District
1, which includes some of the city’s richer neighborhoods—including
Oakland Hills and Rockridge—and other less affluent regions in the
in Kalb's cluttered City Hall office, Ars explained the LPR issue. We
asked for Kalb's plate number and, within seconds, showed him what the
OPD knew about his travels. Our tool revealed that OPD had seen the
councilman 51 times between May 2012 and May 2014.
On 16 occasions, Kalb’s car was scanned parked on the street just
outside City Hall in the spaces reserved for council members. On another
20 occasions, at various times of day, Kalb’s car was spotted in a
tight group on a certain block in the Temescal neighborhood. When Ars
guessed that this block must be where he lives, he said that it was.
“I knew these things existed, but I had not delved into the level of detail that you're sharing with me,” he said.
Kalb is relatively new to City Hall, having only been elected in
2012. Though he did know that the city had LPRs, he said he didn’t know
the extent of its usage.
“My awareness is that we have something like this, these mobile LPRs,
and I presumed that their primary purpose was to track down stolen
vehicles or assist in the investigations of other crimes that knowing
the license plate would help,” he told Ars. “It raises the question:
what's the purpose of retaining records for a long period of time?”
The purpose, of course, is to enable retroactive investigation of movements.
Anthony Finnell, the head of OPD’s civilian oversight body (known as the Citizens’ Police Review Board), told Ars that this wasn't a serious privacy concern.
“I can see as a former investigator that there would be a tool, if a
crime had happened you may want to put that person's plate in and
backtrack," Finnell, a veteran of the Indianapolis Police Department,
said. "That doesn't discount a person's concern. But I can just say from
a personal standpoint, I don't see it as a big problem, because there's
so many other ways to track somebody.”
Oakland has a higher murder rate than Los Angeles. For three years
running, the city has held the dubious honor of being America’s urban robbery capital.
The city recorded 4,922 robberies in 2013—or 14 per day. Police see
LPRs as one more tool used to put a dent in the crime rate.
Anecdotally, cops often say that LPR data is great for finding stolen
vehicles or locating criminal suspects, and it's easy to imagine how
such license plate reader data could be correlated with financial
information, cellular data, or even surveillance video in a more complex
One LPR case often cited on the East Coast is the 2007 murder of five people in Fishkill, New York.
Local police were able to access the LPR records of a state trooper who
happened to be nearby. That data showed the suspect's car was in the
vicinity of the killing when it happened, which dismantled his alibi.
"They were able to coordinate GPS positions and time and place that
car in front of the house shortly before the alarm was raised with the
local fire department," Pete Kontos, a New York State Police senior
investigator, told the Hudson Valley Journal News in 2009. "It was a substantial piece of evidence used in the trial."
Oakland police captain Anthony Toribio, a department employee for 25
years, echoed this sentiment. He told Ars that LPRs are useful to his
"It's a significant tool to have because it can speed up the
investigative process by identifying vehicles, linking them to crimes,
linking them to locations where that car has been flagged so to speak or
identified by the LPR system,” he said. When he served as an area
commander, he “used it frequently.”
Toribio noted that Oakland purchased 20 new cameras in 2014, and he
said that the city was exploring the use of trailer-mounted “fixed
cameras” that could be moved as needed.
“We try to strategically place these cars in areas or beats that are
high crime areas,” he said. Toribio cited an occasion when, as a result
of a high incidence of burglaries in the hills of North Oakland, he once
ordered an LPR-equipped car to that area.
“Often times you have the suspects that are casing the area and
driving around, and you never know when a cop car may drive by and
they're not doing nothing at that point, but a short while later they
may be driving by and it's good to have that information.”
Any OPD officer can search the department’s LPR database. While the
individual officer’s name is logged, no reason for the search has to be
entered. Toribio noted that OPD policy requires officers to have a
"legitimate law enforcement purpose, such as following up on a criminal
investigation" in order to access the database. "Accessing databases for
personal use is a policy violation and illegal in some circumstances,"
Evidence for LPR effectiveness remains largely anecdotal. Toribio
could not provide any quantitative evidence to suggest that the LPR
system made the police more effective overall at catching suspects than
before implementation in 2006. Academics studying the issue say that the
question remains open.
“The research is so limited at this point that we don’t know a lot of the answers,” Linda Merola,
a criminology and law professor at George Mason University, told Ars.
Her university has spearheaded many of the academic efforts on LPRs.
“At this point there have been a handful of evaluations of trying to
look at what is the impact in an immediate sense: what is the impact of
arrests?" she added. "Can we find more stolen vehicles? Even that
research is very limited, and it hasn’t shown very much. What is the
impact, if any, on saving data? There have been times anecdotally, but
we really don’t know if it serves any purpose other than a theoretical
While the potential for LPR dragnet surveillance worries some privacy
advocates, the police perspective is that public actions are... public.
In 2006, for instance, Gina Bianchi, the deputy commissioner and
counsel at the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, wrote in a memo
to all local law enforcement agencies across the state, "A license
plate reader merely accomplishes, more efficiently, the same task that a
police officer may accomplish by reading a license plate and manually
entering the number into a database. Therefore, it is reasonable to
assume that a court would not hold that the use of a license plate
reader would constitute a search."
Toribio put it more plainly.
“You have to remember the data that we get from the LPR is limited to
the plate, the photo, and the location,” he said. “Any information that
comes in that alerts us that that vehicle was involved in a crime, the
officer has to do more homework. But what expectation of privacy do you
have when you're out in public?”
Toribio is referring to a unanimous 1983 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Knotts.
That case famously found: “A person traveling in an automobile on
public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his
But Knotts came before it was possible to build automated
systems that track and store the movement of every car passing by over a
period of years. More recently, as part of the unanimous 2012 Supreme
Court decision on warrantless GPS tracking, United States v. Jones, Justice Samuel Alito referred to the Knotts decision and said it might not apply as "public" surveillance becomes more comprehensive.
Under this approach, relatively short-term monitoring of a
person's movements on public streets accords with expectations of
privacy that our society has recognized as reasonable. See Knotts, 460 U.S., at 281-282.
But the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most
offenses impinges on expectations of privacy. For such offenses,
society's expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others
would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and
catalogue every single movement of an individual's car for a very long
While the distinctions between LPR camera systems and GPS tracking
are notable, huge LPR databases start to move closer toward the GPS
model and might one day run into trouble with the courts. For now, the
use of license plate readers has been upheld in numerous criminal cases around the country. And police and prosecutors are happy to use them.
“From a police perspective we are looking at this data to help solve
crimes and to help individuals who are solving crimes,” Toribio added.
“What I did on a regular basis when reviewing crime reports is look for
license plates and then use the license plate reader to get a picture of
the vehicle, and its location, and provide that information to police
officers to help identify individuals.”
“We have nothing to hide”
In Oakland, no one in the city government has told the police to stop
collecting LPR data for years at a time—nor to avoid sharing it.
Therefore, the police have done both.
“There is a process that needs to be in place to purge data, and I
think that is one of the things that the city is working on, is how long
do we keep data?” Toribio said. “We need input from the city attorney
and the city needs to decide.”
When asked what would be an appropriate retention period, he replied, "I would say five years is a good amount of time."
But when Ars told him that the public records request didn’t come
back with records older than 2011, he said he would check. Hours later,
he called back, saying that the OPD deletes data “as necessary” to free
up storage space. Toribio then clarified his position, saying that the
LPR data should be kept for two years. (That may explain why some of my
own records from April 2012 are missing from the dataset.)
“I know that for OPD, transparency is very important, and unless
there is a reason not to release information—if it is part of an ongoing
active criminal investigation, for example—we have nothing to hide,”
Toribio said. “I think it's important for a law enforcement organization
to be transparent, and it goes to being credible and establishing
legitimacy in the community.”
UPDATE Wednesday 1:38am CT: Bryce Newell,
a doctoral student at the University of Washington, wrote Ars to say
that this collection from Oakland, while large, is not the largest ever
released: "I have been examining (for research purposes) an ALPR
database from Seattle Police Department disclosed years ago with more
than 7.3 million scans (it was originally disclosed to the ACLU of Washington,
not me). I have a number of other databases from the Seattle Police
Department and Minneapolis Police Department that all have millions of
scans (and other, smaller, ones from elsewhere)."
all the cable, telephone and Internet companies, the one with the most
awful reputation is Comcast. Type the words “Comcast customer service”
into a search engine and prepare to be flooded with customers using
words like “nightmarish,” “embarrassing,” “worst ever,” “epic failure”
and “customer service from hell.”
And America is not enduring this for the sake of bargain-basement prices.
Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen, who is
trying to persuade the California Public Utilities Commission to approve
Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable, thus creating the largest
broadband service provider in the United States, said when the deal was
announced: “We’re certainly not promising that customer bills are going
to go down or even increase less rapidly.”
If they had a choice, many of Comcast’s customers
wouldn’t be their customers. If the merger with Time Warner goes
through, that choice is about to get a whole lot worse.
Economists use a scale called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index
to measure the level of concentration in a market. Anything with an HHI
increase of more than 200 points is likely to enhance market power. The
HHI increase for the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable is a
4,927-point increase in the fixed broadband market.
California customers have nowhere to run.
Some 76 percent of them will not be able to get
broadband service at the FCC-defined high-speed download rate of 25
megabits per second from anyone but the merged Comcast-Time Warner
Cable. That isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Both Verizon’s FIOs
service and AT&T’s U-verse service have slowed new deployments in
California, and Google Fiber is developing slowly. The speed gap between
DSL and cable Internet connections is growing, and DSL connections are
becoming less viable for many users.
No real competition means no real choice to keep
prices in line. Cohen is right. Post-merger, consumer bills are not
going to increase less rapidly.
And it’s even worse for content and application
providers. As owners of NBCUniversal, Comcast has interests in content
and power over the distribution of competing content. For example, the
company was tagged with preventing customers from streaming HBO Go on
Sony PlayStations. Roku, another streaming service, also experienced
carriage problems with Comcast.
California’s public and educational channels, as well
as some independent foreign-language channels, have complained for
years about cable-system menus that move channels into the stratosphere,
making them hard for consumers to find or dropping them from cable
systems entirely. With Charter Communications systems reverting to
Comcast and the removal of Time Warner Cable from the cable market,
Comcast’s dominance means its treatment of smaller channels in cable
systems and carriage issues with disruptive providers such as Roku and
Sony PlayStation would extend throughout much of the state.
While some Internet protection may come from new
network neutrality rules, there isn’t much doubt those rules are going
to face challenges, both in Congress and in the courts. Without them, in
the words of CPUC Administrative Law Judge Karl Bemesderfer: “This is
precisely the 'terminating monopoly’ power that intervenors fear. The
power of the terminating monopolist to discriminate or otherwise act
anticompetitively could increase the cost and reduce the attractiveness
of competing content.”
The federal government must approve the merger, but
each state must approve license transfers. The California Public
Utilities Commission will vote on whether to transfer certain state
licenses from Time Warner Cable to Comcast.
To read the recent 100-plus-page decision
from the CPUC, you wouldn’t think this proposed merger is good for
anyone. The regulator approved the merger with more than two dozen
conditions to mitigate the bad impacts on Californians.
The huge list of conditions is designed to make the
merger “less destructive” to digital inclusion, consumer protection and
competition in the cable and broadband markets.
the problem. The public has limited funds and resources to take
mega-corporations to court. The commission, under fire for getting too
cozy with industries it regulates, is giving itself a mighty big job to
proactively enforce 25 different conditions for the next five years.
Concerns of Comcast failing to abide by these conditions isn’t just a
rumor. On Tuesday, the company filed objections to
20 of the proposed conditions. And fines and other punitive actions
won’t really prevent the destructive impacts on Californians suffering
from high prices, bad service and limited access.
There’s an easier solution. If something takes two
dozen onerous conditions to prevent significant damage, then maybe the
public is better off without it. On March 26, the commission will vote
on the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. A million conditions can’t make
this a good enough deal. There comes a time to just say no.