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With Vast Surveillance Network, Pittsburgh D.A. Has ‘Created A Dystopian Reality’

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala has gotten into the surveillance game, but advocates say that raises questions about his role.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown/Photos from Getty

When Kevin Thompson was found murdered and dismembered in his home in South Pittsburgh in May 2018, investigators started digging into the evidence to identify the culprit. After a license plate camera in the city spotted Thompson’s car at an intersection a few days after the incident, police were able to identify the driver as Thompson’s roommate, who allegedly confessed to the crime.

The camera was part of a surveillance network launched in recent years that now includes more than 1,000 security cameras and more than 350 license plate readers in Allegheny and surrounding counties. Similar to ones in use elsewhere around the country, the network is meant to spot people engaged in crimes such as theft, kidnapping, and hit-and-runs.

In many cities, such networks are paid for and installed by the local government or by the police department. But in Allegheny County, home of Pittsburgh, District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. has taken surveillance into his own hands. His office has led the installation of the cameras, making experts question whether Zappala is expanding the role of prosecutor.

“It seems like it kind of skips a step,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “For a prosecutor to be doing this, it doesn’t seem like it’s an attempt at preventing crime so much as expediting the process of putting people into the criminal justice system.”

According to records obtained by Pennsylvania investigative news outlet The Caucus, Zappala’s office has spent roughly $1.5 million on the network over the past five years, mostly obtained through drug forfeiture. 

Thus far, Zappala’s office—arguing that sharing such information could leave the system vulnerable to hacking—has declined to name the company they’ve contracted with to monitor the camera footage, share details of the contract, or say how the private player intends to use and store the vast amounts of sensitive data. Zappala’s office confirmed details of the program to The Appeal but declined to discuss its implications. 

“He’s created a dystopian reality in the county,” said Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The residents are being watched at all times and it’s by some anonymous company that he won’t even name.”

Eyes on the street

In his two decades as district attorney, Zappala has faced criticism for a range of policies, including prosecuting low-level crimes and charging children as adults, and for how he uses drug forfeiture money. Now he’s facing questions on surveillance, even as he praises the network’s success in reducing crime.

John Hudson, owner of Security Consulting Solutions, said he has a contract to develop the system of cameras and license plate readers in Allegheny and adjacent counties. He told a local reporter that the system is deployed throughout Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, and Washington counties, and collects nearly 13.5 million plates each week.

Jason Tashea, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and an expert on the impact of technology in criminal legal systems, worries license plate readers aren’t doing what Allegheny County says they are doing.

“I think there’s an open, unanswered question about whether or not this is helping people solve crime,” he told The Appeal. “There’s always the anecdotal evidence that this has done something good in an ongoing investigation, but whether or not it justifies the cost and the broader security and privacy concerns is a different question.”

The technology can easily be misused. Police have used cameras and license plate readers to scan worshippers at a mosque, according to news reports, and people attending protests. According to the ACLU, over 80 police departments have also agreed to share license plate data with ICE.

“License plate readers open the door to a more constant surveillance in a way that seems like the Supreme Court may be uncomfortable with,” Tashea said, explaining that the Court has shown concern about tracking people in public without search warrants.

A bill moving its way through the Pennsylvania legislature would regulate license plate readers, but Hoover says it doesn’t go nearly far enough. “We feel that the data collected by the readers should be deleted within hours or days,” he said. “The bill lets the Pennsylvania State Police hold the data for up to a year.”

There are also indications that Allegheny County won’t stop at just license plate readers. 

“Down the road is facial recognition,” said Dick Skrinjar, a project manager in Zappala’s office, during a February community forum in Pittsburgh, according to The Caucus. Skrinjar explained that the technology could help restrict the movement of children on probation. “We can put them in the system and restrict where these people go, and keep them out of areas they’re not supposed to be in.”

Privacy and civil liberty experts say that facial recognition technology is problematic when applied to children and teenagers because there is a higher risk of false matches for young faces. Hoover called the thought of cameras tracking children on probation—or anyone in the district—highly disturbing and questioned whether Zappala had thought through potential consequences.

“That’s the problem with technology,” he said. “Once it starts, law enforcement never wants to stop and that’s why there have to be restrictions on its use. Facial recognition is just going to expand the ability of the DA’s office to know where people are at all times.”

‘Different obligations’ 

Zappala’s expanded role raises questions about how prosecutors will wield the information they obtain when it comes to criminal trials, said Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia and an expert on predictive policing.

“We’re used to prosecutors standing back, getting the information or data from police, and then getting to make an objective judgment about whether or not they want to move forward,” Ferguson said. “Here, they’re moving into the investigative role. That certainly happens in some big cases … but for ordinary cities and for ordinary crime, it’s a different role for prosecutors and it means there are different obligations and different ethical considerations.” 

One such obligation Ferguson described is the requirement, under the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Brady v. Maryland, for prosecutors to disclose exculpatory and impeaching material. 

In an article published in the UCLA Law Review in May, Ferguson looked at how prosecutors are joining the big data revolution, and called the analysis of their Brady obligations an “urgent examination because intelligence-driven prosecution is being promoted nationally as the future of prosecution.” 

Given Zappala’s move into data collection, Ferguson said the DA’s office would effectively have to analyze the six months of driver’s license data and provide anything exculpatory to the defense. If prosecutors accuse someone of a crime, but the driver’s license cameras actually caught him or her in a different place at the same time, they would have to share that information. 

“If there are cameras recording everywhere and that data is in the possession of the prosecutors, it’s hard for them to say that they didn’t know when one of their cameras collects impeaching or exculpatory information,” Ferguson said. 

Ferguson’s research has found that intelligence-led prosecution has become a national phenomenon, with new tactics in cities in California, Delaware, Louisiana, Missouri, Illinois, and potentially more jurisdictions.

Legal questions like this will become more complicated, Ferguson said, as prosecutors move toward collecting more data related to people’s everyday lives. 

“If they take on that role,” Ferguson said, “they have to really worry about how it impacts their objectivity, their ability to evaluate cases coming to them, and whether there aren’t other obligations that also arise when they play this new role as investigator.”