WARWICK, RI — A U.S. Naval War College expert on information warfare warned Warwick City Councillors that allowing Flock security cameras would be a step toward a police state, and urged them not to allow it Wednesday night.
The City Council postponed the issue until May 16, when Councilman Anthony Sinapi is expected to have drafted a “scope of use,” ordinance for the system that Professor Marc Genest of Warwick, Ph.D., professor of strategy at NWC in Newport, RI, expert on information warfare, assured them would trade Warwick residents’ civil liberties for a dubious promise of increased safety.
Genest spoke of trips to China and other countries he has made, where such systems, often begun with good intentions, have grown into tools of oppression in totalitarian countries.
“This nation was built on civil liberties. And you, right now, are going to decide to take a piece of that away from the residents of Warwick,” Genest said.
Warwick Police Col. Brad Connor said the system of 10 traffic cameras, paid for over a two year contract at $27,500 for the first year and $25,000 for the second, would only be used to record license plates, and that the images would be saved for 30 days before being deleted. He said the system is not intended to be used to write traffic tickets.
Connor said he approached Mayor Frank Picozzi about plan, received his approval and then discussed the plan with Council President Steve McAllister. His letter to the council on the matter sought a bid exception request for the service because the company, Flock Safety, is unique among vendors serving Rhode Island.
But the company is not unique in the country. It has competitors nationally and has no monopoly on the technology it’s selling, as Councilman Jeremy Rix explored during questions about the company Wednesday night.
“Flock does have competitors using the same technology?” Rix asked
“Yes.” replied Craig Lindy of Flock Safety.
“Those competitors not currently in RI at this time?”
“Yes,” Lindy said.
“However, I think that this should go through the normal bidding process, because, even if competitors don’t have contracts with municipalities in Rhode Island right now, I don’t believe that should prevent us from seeking bids from other providers with ALPR cameras, learning about the different systems, and being able to compare whether it’s an apples to apples comparison or learning more about the different offers, different prices. I think that the bidding process, if we decide to go in this direction would tend to produce the most cost effective results and have a community discussion on what all of our options are,” Rix said.
Rix also took issue with Connor’s statement that the cameras can never be used for facial recognition.
“I’m not sure if that statement is accurate,” Rix said, asking further questions that confirmed the ALPR technology Flock sells is not exclusive to their company.
“It would be my position that, if the city bid is in relation to ALRR technology, then a 56-6 (the bid exception) would not be appropriate, as competitors also use ALRR technology and those competitors may likewise have claims that they could be considered a sole source provider, based on what makes their company unique. And so, I think that the bidding process would be the most appropriate there.”
Rix pointed out that allowing the company to skirt the bid process would open the city to lawsuits from Flock’s competitors.
City Council Solicitor Bill Walsh informed the council the exception to the bid process was allowable only if failing to grant it would work to the disadvantage of the city, or if doing so would avoid an emergency.
Genest was not the first to point out the civil liberty threats Flock Security presents to local citizens.
“The capability that these cameras have to indiscriminately track when and where drivers go can create an oppressive system of government surveillance in a free society,” the ACLU of Rhode Island stated in August, when Flock cameras were put into use by Cranston, Pawtucket and Woonsocket.
Pauline Genest, who attended with her husband Marc, noted that there is no threat of disadvantage to the city or emergency that would warrant an exception to the bid rule as outlined by Walsh. She also noted that while the cameras may not be installed with the intent of oppressive surveillance, that intent does not change the fact that the potential exists. Intent changes over time, she pointed out.
“One of the things was that a lot of the wording of tonight’s discussion was what these cameras will and won’t do, versus what these cameras can and cannot do,” she said.
She pointed out that descriptions on Flocks’ own website note details such as who is in the car, the car rack and other details are visible. “It’s a very detailed, focused picture,” she said. “Once those cameras are up, the technology is there.”
Councilman Ed Ladouceur made similar observations.
“I’ve heard policy. I’ve heard never. I’ve heard can’t. I’ve heard won’t. Policy is set up by people . Policies change.”
Councilman McElroy asked if the images would be considered public documents. Connor said he didn’t know.
Councilman William Foley expressed misgivings about the technology.
“I’m a history and English teacher and 1984 really hit a chord with me, and Big Brother. And I’m not making any allegations. But my concern is are there any lawsuits currently against this technology, because it does, for 30 days, store information on random people who have committed no crime,” Foley said.
Professor Genest, who has worked as advisor to the US Army in Afghanistan and regularly visits China to speak with its military, spoke passionately against allowing the cameras, citing personal experience with the issue and first hand knowledge of the path the Council was considering setting Warwick on. His remarks have been transcribed below:
Professor Marc Genest:
“I hate coming to these meetings. I have a busy life. I do not want to come to these meetings. But when I saw this today, at the last minute, I called Ed Ladouceur and talked to him about it, and he strongly suggested I come, so thank you Mr. Ladouceur for having me and I’ve been very impressed, Jeremy Rix, with your points and with others, about the potential problems involved in this.
I’ve been dealing with this area for a long period of time. And one of the things that really bothers me, and it frightens me, is the term, ‘intended.’ Now, I really support our police, particularly the Warwick Police. They’ve done a fine job. And I understand in that profession it is all about security and enhancing the tools with which they can provide greater security for the residents of Warwick. I’m all for that.
But I’ve been in too many countries, in totalitarian countries, that use this technology to control, to surveil, and to deny people their basic civil liberties. And I don’t think the members of this committee are taking that seriously enough. I’ll give you one example: When I was in China in 2019, when you crossed the street there was a screen across the street that literally took pictures of individuals and if you were jaywalking, they literally put the person’s name through facial recognition up on the screen and they gave them social demerits. And if you got enough of these social demerits, you were fired from your position, and you were given all kinds of penalties. Right?
This is the state that we find as the most critical potential enemy to our country. And the reason we do is because they are antithetical to our ideas of liberty. And we are beginning to, in the name of scare tactics, from private companies, who are telling you, we have to protect our children, we have to to make sure that our streets are safe.
We’re al for that. But it’s demagoguery, because what it is, it’s creating a surveillance state. A police state, that none of you, I don’t know if any of you have been to China and have had to deal with the Chinese government. You are on constant surveillance 24-7. I know these are small steps.
But with small steps come bigger steps. And you have got to look at the long-term consequences of this. And it’s very, very dangerous to do so. You are literally sacrificing the civil liberties of your residents for just a tiny, tiny bit more security. And then what you’re doing, is your placing all of that information in a private security firm. Not a government security firm, but a private security firm.
I’ve had clearances for 20 years. The Russians and Chinese government know more about me than the police colonel here will ever be able to know. Why? Because they’ve hacked into Department of Defense systems, our communications systems, our computer systems, and they know a ton about us and anyone who’s served in the service for the last 15 years, your information is known to them as well. All right? So what you’re doing is you’re taking the word of a private sector company who’s in it for profit, saying ‘We are secure.’ You name one financial institution in this country that has not been hacked into.
If the Department of Defense has been hacked into, then anyone can be hacked into.
And then we hear that it’s all encrypted. I can give you 20 friends of mine within 30 miles that can break encryptions. We do this all the time. We have agencies devoted to breaking encryptions. This is not something that’s invincible. Do not them sell you a bill of goods and let them use scare tactics, talking to you about security, when in reality it’s about making money and – then, again, I am not impugning the motives of our police department. This is their profession. They will use every tool they can, to do the best job they can. I agree with that.
But it is up to you. It is up to you to be a balance. How much of our liberty are you going to sacrifice in the name of potentially increasing our day to day security? Read the Constitution. Read the Declaration of Independence. This nation was built on civil liberties. And you, right now, are going to decide to take a piece of that away from the residents of Warwick.
Understand the consequences. The long-term consequences of this. And when the colonel and others talk about the intended use of this technology, wake up. Intended use is good for the short run. In the long run, technology increases and advances. We are now talking about big data. We’re talking about quantum mechanics and quantum use of technology, in order to be able to use data in real time, and be able to understand and compute and analyze data faster than we’ve ever imagined. And this is the information and this is the technology that is available to us now.
And what you’re doing is you’re walking hand in hand with a private company whose motive is to make money and the pure motives of our police department and yet, what you’re doing is you’re willing to sacrifice our civil liberties.
I am not over-exaggerating this. I really am not. This is the small step that people take with the best of intentions that will lead you down the path of hell. Stop it, now. I’ve been working on this for decades. You want to talk about this any time, I’ll give you my phone number, but this is the wrong thing to do in the wrong place at the wrong time. Do not do this. Thank you.”
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