March 26, 2018 - From the March, 2018 issue

Surveillance in Cities: Peter Marx & Allan Alexander Opine

Across the globe smart cities are increasingly procuring and implementing information and communication technology in order to improve the efficiency and sustainability of urban spaces while reducing costs and resource consumption. In the context of surveillance, many cities monitor citizens through strategically placed sensors around the urban landscape, which collect data. From these sensors, data is transmitted, aggregated, and analyzed by governments and other local authorities in order to extrapolate information about the challenges the city faces in sectors such as crime prevention, traffic management, energy use and waste reduction. Of course, the constant and omnipresent collection and transmission from disparate sources into a single government entity has led to concerns being raised that these systems turning into ‘electronic panopticons’ where governments exploit data driven technologies in order to maximize effective surveillance of their citizens. TPR sat down with former City of LA Chief Technology Officer and GE Executive Peter Marx, and former Beverly Hills Mayor Allan Alexander (pictured) to explore the potential impacts to the Southern California region.


Allan Alexander

“We have to collectively decide, society by society, how much surveillance we want to tolerate.” —Peter Marx

Peter, given your extensive experience in the private sector with Qualcomm and GE, and in the public sector with the city of Los Angeles, should citizens be concerned about surveillance? Should urban dwellers have any expectation of urban anonymity or privacy?

Peter Marx: There is surveillance for public safety and health, for monitoring people’s behavior for marketing purposes, and for regulating political thought and community diversity, which we see in other parts of the world.

In the U.S., it boils down to the following: If you’re in a public place—let’s say a large airport like LAX—there are likely thousands of cameras there, too. They are there to keep an eye out, collect evidence, and allow first responders to understand what they’re going into in case of emergency—for the public safety of everybody at that airport.

On the private-sector side, we’re seeing people using tons of data to pursue commercial interests. The Economist ran a famous cover story a couple years back saying that surveillance was the new business model. That’s certainly the model that we see in the West.

In more authoritarian countries, we see surveillance of the public being used for political control. In Western China, they use data not only from cameras, but also from facial recognition, mobile devices, automobile tags, body scans, and even DNA in order to create a complete database of everybody who’s in China and what their activities are. The purpose of this is quite clear: public safety, yes, but also maintaining the power of the state.

We have to collectively decide, society by society, how much we want to tolerate.


Allan, as mayor of Beverly Hills in the mid-1990s, you introduced ubiquitous cameras into commercial areas of the city. How was video surveillance viewed by your constituents at that time?

Allan Alexander: At the time, I had concerns about safety having read about the outbreaks of violence in Europe, in particular the IRA attacks in London. I visited London, as well as Monaco, to see the CCTV security operations there, and I was very impressed with what I saw. That brought about the program for cameras in the Beverly Hills’ business district.

There was some concern about introducing cameras, but the opposition centered on their use in residential areas, where they might be able to look into their homes. In response, I proposed that we focus the cameras first on Rodeo Drive—which was my main concern at that time, because it was so well known internationally—and then expand to other commercial streets in Beverly Hills, and put no cameras in residential areas. We made it clear to the residents that CCTV in residential areas was not part of the plan. (I personally thought that at some time in the future, residents would be asking for CCTV in their residential areas, and that that would be the time to expand the program. I was right, as that is what has now happened—though I didn’t think it would take 25 years!)

Most residents in Beverly Hills, like in London and Monaco, came to the conclusion that the security benefits of the cameras in the business areas outweighed their concern with privacy. In London, a study at the time found that 78 percent of the people interviewed supported putting cameras in the business district.

Some residents in Beverly Hills, though not many, were even concerned about cameras in the commercial areas. They said things like, “What if someone is out with his 'girlfriend' walking on Rodeo Drive and it’s caught on video?” But this was a minor opinion; most people just laughed at it.

We now have more than 600 cameras throughout the commercial district and at certain key public assets, like water facilities. That number will likely continue to grow.

Peter, as data collection technologies have become more sophisticated—growing from cameras to mobile phones, facial recognition, screening license plates, and more—has public concern about personal privacy grown as well? 

Peter Marx: There is very strong social apprehension around collecting data, but it’s changing over time. If you told somebody 15 years ago, for example, that you were going to index their emails, they would have said, “That’s really creepy.” On the other hand, everyone using Gmail today has their emails indexed for the purposes of advertising.

Some concern always remains, but the genie is out of the bottle. We’re not going to go back to a world where we willfully don’t know what’s happening in public places. And frankly, when you’re in a public place, you don’t have an expectation of privacy. If you feel that you do, then maybe that’s not the right place for you to be.

Where it gets a bit weird is in more private places: As the mayor mentioned, nobody wants the government to see when they’re coming and going from their houses or hotel rooms. But the reality is that there is lots of data collection happening now about what’s happening in homes and hotel rooms—on the private-sector side.

The concept of a smart home, for example, is fundamentally about putting sensors around your house in order to do things automatically. By definition, it’s about collecting data in your home and understanding and acting on patterns in that data. For whatever reason, the home is considered a reasonable place for the private sector to collect data; you don’t see a lot of outrage about it. 

Allan, Culver City recently declined to acquire automated license plate readers that could share information openly. Based on your own experience as Mayor of an adjacent city, was this a wise decision? 

Allan Alexander: Beverly Hills has had automated license plate readers (ALPR) in place for more than five years, and to my knowledge there has been no objection to it. When people think of it, they see the positive elements. They think of police stopping a suspect in a car that has been identified by ALPR as stolen. They think of forensics, and all the crimes that have been solved because of video footage that has been captured.

I also believe new tech surveillance, whether ALPR or CCTV, is a deterrent to crime. From the beginning, I made it clear that I didn’t want our cameras to be hidden; I wanted residents and visitors to know that Beverly Hills had cameras, so they could feel safer in the city. To be blunt, I also wanted anyone considering committing crime in Beverly Hills to know about the cameras and to think: “Why commit a crime in Beverly Hills where they have all these cameras?”

I think the cameras make people feel protected—not just residents, but also people who work in the city and tourists from all over the world who come here to enjoy Rodeo Drive and other favorite places. I like to think of Beverly Hills as one of the safest cities in the world.

How do you react to those citizens who have expressed concerns about a loss of privacy and who have a fear of government overreach?

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Allan Alexander: My reaction is that, while you have to be sensitive to people’s concerns about their privacy, you also need to weigh them against the advantages of providing security and solving crimes.

As I have said, the residential districts are where these concerns arise. There’s technology now that can essentially see through walls, and I do see that kind of intrusion as a legitimate concern. That’s why, in the 1990s, the City Council and I purposefully took the position that we weren’t going to touch residential areas.

But interestingly, the City of Beverly Hills recently passed a proposal, after public discussion, to install CCTV in residential areas. There will be approximately 600 cameras looking down the streets and able to see front yards, but not able to turn their view into the houses. There’s still that protection, and I believe that is a principal reason that there has not been significant complaint about the residential program. 

Peter, you mentioned that surveillance technology is used and perceived differently in China. Compare and contrast how surveillance and privacy are balanced in China versus Beverly Hills.

Peter Marx: Cameras, license plate readers, and even facial recognition (from a distance) are all very passive forms of surveillance: Nobody has to stop what they’re doing. They can continue driving, walking, or whatever. But when you have to stop and talk to a police officer, or stop and look into the camera in order to be recognized—then there is a debate to be had about the balance between convenience and safety.

In Western China, there are traffic stops every 100-500 meters, where you are pulled over and asked to show your ID and to explain to the police where you’re going. If there were a checkpoint at every intersection in Beverly Hills, I think there would be a lot more upset about surveillance—in part because it’s highly inconvenient.

The government in China does it this way very overtly and for a very specific purpose: They don’t want to have problems between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese. They use the same techniques in Tibet. That’s a very different scenario than how surveillance is used in Beverly Hills.

Is surveillance in the urban metros of the U.S. evolving toward what you describe in China and Tibet? And judging by your own engagements in this policy space, is the discussion today attentive to the trade-offs involved in finding the balance of security, efficiency, and privacy? 

Peter Marx: By the time we have those debates, it’s going to be much too late. The reality is that we’re in a mode—and I don’t think that it’s stoppable—where collecting more and more data is part of our society and our lives.

We all see the immediate benefits of this, but we may not think through the long-term impacts. For example, in Hancock Park, where I live, there has been an increase in property crime. I know that the reaction of my neighbors will be to put up more cameras. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but they’re not thinking about 30-40 years down the line, when suddenly, we’re going to be able to run some very interesting analytics on all that data.

I’m sure that when London put up CCTV, no one thought it would be used to determine whether a child was going to their assigned school. Yet, in at least one case in London, kids were surveilled to find out whether they lived in the district where they were in school. It doesn’t seem terribly far-fetched for data to be used in a similar way here in the U.S.

Allan, you’ve had a 25-year view of the evolution of the camera program you put in place in Beverly Hills. How do you see issues of surveillance and privacy evolving over the next 25 years?

Allan Alexander: I think that overall, concerns about safety, security, and protection are outweighing concerns about the government imposing on people’s privacy. It’s always going to be an issue, but it seems clear that people have already accepted being exposed to CCTV in public areas including in retail stores, office buildings and hotels. I expect to see even more acceptance of surveillance in public areas going forward.

Still, in the case of cities, you can’t get ahead of your constituents. You have to let people come around to it. For example, look at what happened in Beverly Hills: Residents didn’t support putting cameras in residential areas 25 years ago. Now, they want it, in order to deter or prevent home robberies. In fact, many residents are putting their own CCTV system in their houses and around their property, connected to their computers and smart phones. 

Of course, people also have to trust the government—in this case, the city—that the technology is being used for the right purpose. That means there have to be appropriate restrictions on how the technology is employed.

A final thought on the future of surveillance by CCTV and other such technology is to consider the cost factor. The cost of these technologies has gone down dramatically, and that’s a big issue for cities.

When we started installing security cameras, the costs were huge. Moreover, the cost of video storage was almost prohibitive for us. And when we first implemented license-plate reading cameras on our police cars, it cost around $25,000 per car. Today, Beverly Hills is adding another 600 cameras, and the costs are not an impediment to putting in place this kind of security. Data is kept in the cloud, so the cost of storage has also gone down dramatically. These costs will no doubt continue to go down, which means that these security tools will be available to cities large and small.

To conclude, Peter, could you elaborate on how surveillance technology (and government’s embrace of it) is changing our society?

Peter Marx: The mayor is right that the cost of surveillance technology has plummeted. The cost factor is following the classic Moore’s law: you’re getting twice as much for half as much every two years.

In fact, there is an open-source software kit out there so that you can actually make your own license-plate reader for less than $25. Or you can go onto Amazon and buy a pack of five battery-operated cameras for a few hundred dollars, connect them to your house and to the cloud, and watch them from your iPhone. This is incredibly powerful, in a way that was unimaginable 10 years ago.

The benefits of many of these things are undeniable. I feel safe in pretty much every public space where there is identifiable security and surveillance. I think we all remember what going to Times Square what used to be like; it’s not like that anymore, at least in part due to the ability for the NYPD to monitor digitally and react quickly. Now, it’s great. The protection of public places is manifestly beneficial to all of us.

The challenge that is that all of this surveillance is changing our society in bits and pieces, and I don’t think we know where it’s going. It’s going to be fascinating to see how things change over the next 20 years, when we’re all living very transparent lives—much more transparent lives than our parents had, or than even we had as kids. Things are going to be different; that’s all I can say.

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© 2018 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.