Opinion » Shredder

Watch them watch us


So the city of San Luis Obispo has put up cameras on dozens of stoplights, sending live feeds into a city building for city employees to monitor. But it’s not surveillance.

They’re the sort of feeds you can zoom in on to get more detail about the people and cars in the pictures. But it’s not surveillance.

They’re supposedly merely doing the same job as those pressure strips that know when a car is at a light. Except that they’re doing full-on video. (Remember, this is not surveillance.)

The SLO City cops set up cameras just like this when they were worried about the partiers of Marti Gras past. They used those cameras to figure out where groups were gathering so they could track them and break them up. These are the same cops who tried to lay the groundwork for red light cameras, only to be thwarted. Don’t worry, though, this is not surveillance.

It’s not surveillance, in other words, unless the city or police would find surveillance convenient. It’s not surveillance unless they suddenly want it to be surveillance. And when that happens, it won’t take so much as a city council meeting to turn the system over to the police or to turn on recorders.

Read Colin Rigley’s cover story closely and you’ll understand it would take practically nothing to start recording these feeds, or to call the police over to start watching. All it takes is a decision by a city manager, just a changed mind. As simple as turning a light from red to green.

And they’ve already headed pretty far down this road, using actual surveillance cameras in various places (such as outside the City Hall bathroom!).

A look at the city’s policy on the use of those cameras doesn’t offer much consolation to a paranoid anonymous columnist. The official policy is to only focus cameras on places that, um, might be safer if someone focused cameras there, or if it might help police in any way, or if it could perhaps, ah, deter vandalism. In other words … anywhere.

They say they don’t let the cameras drift to non-public places, but folks, I’m drawing my curtains because bureaucrats don’t necessarily think like me. They’d think to themselves, “I’m a good person; I’m not going to do anything wrong if I just adjust this camera over here to see more potential vandals.” It wouldn’t concern them if an apartment were in view—not until they saw something they didn’t like going on in that apartment. Don’t forget, two FBI agents were recently caught turning a surveillance camera on teenage girls in a mall dressing room in West Virginia. Folks were astounded. How could older male FBI agents spy on teenage girls?! They never in a million years would have guessed this could happen.

I would have guessed.

So, sure, Ol’ Shred is paranoid again, but the fact is that whenever I wonder if I’ve gone too far worrying about the abuses of public officials, I only underestimate them.

Here’s my own suggestion for places to put cameras:

• Inside the City Hall bathroom. Why bother taping outside a bathroom? Does anybody vandalize the outside of a bathroom? Does anybody have a wide stance issue outside a bathroom? If our city leaders think surveillance is such a great idea, let’s put every official zit pick, every official bowel movement, every official pee and official flush on video. We promise we won’t use it for any purpose unless somebody does anything wrong. Or something really super gross, anyway. Trust us.

• Inside the boardrooms of the banks that have taken federal bailout funds. It’s our money. We should get to see exactly how it’s being spent, but there’s nothing in place to let us track that money. Another problem solved!

• Inside the take-home vehicles of city and county employees. The cars are only to be used for work, so let’s go to the videotape!


All of this makes me want to try again with a contest. Tell me the best places to put surveillance cameras locally, and why. Be snarky.

For those playing along closely, I punted on the “last newspaper headline” contest; there were a few good entries, but not enough. Hey, sue me. I am, however, going to give away really for-real prizes to the winners this time.

Among the potential prizes: False Colors, a man-on-man high seas romance set in 1662 against a backdrop of war, intrigue, piracy, and personal betrayal. Not into that sort of thing? Then you can choose: Surfing: Mastering Waves from Basic to Intermediate. Still not into it? Try Naamah’s Kiss, an alternate historical fantasy featuring bear-witches and womanly magic. Tell me your choice with your entry. It will say so much.

The deadline is June 30. It’ll run July 2. I’ll be watching.

Reach Shredder, and send contest entries to, [email protected].

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