The city of Hartford, Connecticut, isn’t all that large—it boasts a population of around 124,000—and is comprised mostly of people of colour. If you ask Camille Giraldo Kritzman, a community organizer with the immigration advocacy group CT Students for a Dream, that’s why it’s already well on its way to becoming a sort of dystopian surveillance cybercity.
“Hartford is one of the most densely populated cities of colour and one of the poorest cities in New England,” Kritzman told me. “In my opinion, it’s not a coincidence that this is where they’re unveiling this project.”
The project in question amounts to a series of spiffy technological additions to the city’s policing infrastructure. Of course, Hartford is not the first North American city to deploy sophisticated surveillance tools under the auspices of cutting crime. From Toronto to New York, urban centers across the continent (and the world) have, for many years now, been watching and recording citizens in the name of public safety. But in some cases, critics ranging from local residents to the state-level ACLU say, that surveillance seems to be inching toward “predictive policing” or perhaps even “pre-crime,” a term that calls to mind the science-fiction premise of the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Minority Report (and the Philip K. Dick story upon which it was based).
Even if dire warnings of Orwellian police tactics are an old game, there’s little question that facial recognition and tracking software are increasingly available to help cops locate and pursue suspects. And the trend towards more total urban surveillance has raised fresh concerns over privacy—concerns that, while not unique to Hartford, are all the more noteworthy given the federal government no longer seems to be showing any interest in holding local cops accountable.
In Hartford, the city has bundled a bevy of new technologies into what was already a camera-heavy approach to keeping tabs on crime, most recently by earmarking $2.5 million from the state to purchase at least two surveillance drones and other equipment. Local officials portrayed the changes as necessary in a place where homicides were up last year—and public safety remains a paramount concern.
“Like cities across the country, we’ve been grappling with ways to use this technology to make our residents safer and our communities stronger,” Mayor Luke Bronin told me in a wide-ranging interview about surveillance in Hartford. “At the same time we’re being very sensitive to concerns about civil liberties.”
Not everyone in city government has been sold on that promise. When the city decided to accept the grant, Hartford Councilwoman Wildaliz Bermudez explained in an interview, she supported the move, but only as long as the city adopted strict regulations around the use of the drones. So Bermudez crafted a policy, which has been working its way through the legislative affairs and public safety committees, to introduce democratic control over the powerful surveillance technology.
“We wanted to make sure the police have true accountability when they’re using the drones,” she told me.
Cops in town have insisted they are on board with putting rules of the road in place and respecting privacy. “We have legitimate concerns,” Sergeant Johnmichael O’Hare told VICE, referring to himself and other officers. “We don’t want our rights to be violated either.”
In fact, in Mayor Bronin’s view, the city has already been more open about its use of the technology than many other municipalities—and, he suggested, a strong surveillance regime could mean avoiding police tactics like dragnets that have proven harmful in the past for poor and marginalized communities in the city.
“Our discussions have been open and honest ones, and in almost all cases the community has urged us to explore these technologies,” he told me.
In a proposal reviewed by VICE for the near $200,000 purchase of a Aero Surveillance 30-470 drone, local cops listed the technological capabilities of the machines and explained the considerable power of the mounted camera in play. In an accompanying email to Councilwoman Bermudez’s aide Jason Ortiz, Hartford Police Captain James Thody noted that the company’s track record suggested drones would “have a reasonably long lifespan before becoming obsolete.”
One thing the drones would not have, Thody assured Ortiz, was facial recognition technology.
That’s an important clarification to civil liberties advocates in part because facial recognition is the bread and butter of another company helping with the department’s video analysis: BriefCam. An Israeli-American cyber shop, BriefCam provides video search technology that is being used by the department in the Capital City Command Center (previously named the Real Time Crime and Data Intelligence Center, or RTCC), an information aggregation base where analysts direct police officers with the advantage of mass data.
BriefCam uses its video analysis software to compress hours of video into digestible minutes long “events.” In a city like Hartford, with at least 700 cameras accessible to police, that’s a helpful automation of a process that can take days, according to BriefCam’s Vice President of Sales in the Americas Amit Gavish.
The software, Gavish added, does have facial recognition capabilities. But O’Hare disputed that the company’s facial recognition technology is something Hartford “has.” Rather, he said, facial recognition is part of a version of the technology that isn’t, as yet, supported by his department’s capabilities. He did not rule facial recognition out in the future, but insisted it would not store information and would only be used to match subjects spotted by city cameras—and not by outside entities. (How, exactly, such parameters might be enforced in the future was unclear.)
Part of the concern for skeptics of the city’s surveillance-happy approach is that it already has a lot of the key private-sector players in the mix, even if it’s not taking full advantage of their services. For instance, Vulcan Security, a security technology company in nearby South Windsor, helped the department arrange for Milestone Systems video management software to record and aggregate multiple video streams. The software is open platform, according to Tyler Cullen, the director of IT at Vulcan, allowing for other tools like BriefCam’s analytical program to be run alongside it.
“Video surveillance can be used for a number of different applications,” Cullen said. “That can include behavior prediction and analytics to detect complex behavior patterns—the technology is pushing boundaries every day.”
To some civil liberties advocates and local activists, the endgame for this type of technology seems startlingly clear. In the review/audit of the command center’s application of surveillance technologies, Milestone pointed to the use of surveillance tech to “[prevent] incidents before they happen,” which sounds an awful lot like pre-crime. The search capabilities of Milestone and BriefCam allow users to scroll through hours of data to take “proactive responses” to incident prevention, the document said.
“Hartford is definitely pushing the envelope in terms of using this technology,” BriefCam’s Gavish told me.
When it comes to drones, at least, Mayor Bronin suggested the devices were preferable to leaning on the feds for helicopter surveillance—as the city did during a Puerto Rican Day parade on June 2—given the community’s anxiety about the current administration’s immigration crackdown.
“The only option for us that’s affordable and independent, and not reliant on DHS, is the drones,” said Bronin, who added that the federal agency can surveill the city at will anyway.
Whatever the case, another eye in the sky is sure to further frighten members of the city’s Latino population, according to Kritzman, who said some were already nervous about police surveillance. “I work with students and families, and a lot of the people I’ve met with are afraid to go outside, leave their houses, because of the facial recognition technology,” she told me.
When pressed for why Hartford was at the center of this trend toward predictive policing, Councilwoman Bermudez, too, pointed to demographics and the portrayal of local crime. “There is a general sentiment pushed by media that city is not safe,” Bermudez said. “In cities like Hartford where majority pop are people of colour, what gets covered in the news is violence.”
“I don’t think the premise is accurate,” Mayor Bronin said when I brought this concern to him in our interview, referring to community involvement in the decision to purchase the technology. Likewise, when asked about the idea that the city was veering toward predictive policing, O’Hare suggested the city was simply embracing modern solutions to age-old problems with tools like BriefCam. “It’s not necessarily predictive, we’re looking at what have already.”
He added, “We look at it as an analytic tool that helps us run the city better. We’re making things safer and faster for everybody by doing things in the background.”
Even so, Bermudez argued, a surveillance regime in a city where much of the population is marginalized at least in part due to race or income speaks to misplaced priorities—and produces a feeling of being under siege for the benefit of the private sector.
“How much do we want to militarize our communities?” she asked me. “It’s almost like we are the guinea pigs for new video equipment and surveillance.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.