An Eye on Surveillance in Gainesville

The traffic cameras overhead, the bus driving by, the convenience store across the street, that ATM you just withdrew money from — surveillance is everywhere.

But who’s watching? Law enforcement, you’d assume, but they’re only a pixel of the full picture.

Each RTS bus has four to five video cameras recording not just the inside, but the outside, as well. Audio within the bus is also recorded.

Florida Statute 812.173(1)(a) requires every convenience store to have a security camera system and the U.S. Bank Protection Act of 1968 mandates a camera inside every ATM.

Private businesses usually comply to share footage from their own cameras, often without a subpoena or a warrant, according to Ben Tobias, Gainesville Police Department’s public information officer.

Best Buy released surveillance that helped determine the clothes UF student Christian Aguilar wore the day he went missing last September. The matching clothes indicated it was his body that was found 22 days later, before he could be properly identified by an autopsy.

The traffic cameras that are used as part of Gainesville’s traffic management system, a high-tech solution to traffic congestion, can also be utilized by law enforcement to track a person of interest or a suspicious vehicle — but not to ticket drivers.

Since they don’t record, they aren’t considered surveillance cameras, said Matthew Weisman, an Intelligent Transportation Services engineer at the Public Works Department.

But the Intelligent Transportation Services’ Strategic Plan states that the Florida Department of Transportation “collects a significant amount of real-time information, such as video.”

“Generally speaking, this information is not archived,” the document states. “In part, this is to avoid the workload and potential legal implications of third parties seeking access to this information.”

For roughly the past 13 years, police cars in Alachua County have had audio and video recording technology to record interactions between cops and citizens, said Lt. Todd Kelly, public information officer for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.

More than 80,000 license plates, along with the location, date and time, have been captured by just one patrol car using the VeriPlate Automated License Plate Recognition System, a technology the sheriff’s office started using in June 2011. This does not mean 80,000 distinct tags — it could include multiple recordings of the same tag at different times, as Lt. Kelly explained.

The black and white infrared camera can capture up to 1,440 license plates a day, from vehicles parked or moving in either direction of traffic. Another camera takes a high-resolution color photo of the vehicle to accompany its tag number.

The $20,000 system is used to find stolen vehicles, wanted persons, and people driving with suspended or revoked licenses. It’s also used for “domestic security purposes,” according to its purchase order, and to “aid in the continued protection of the motoring public of Florida.”

Storage is purchased on demand and grows as needed, Denise Rodenbough, chief of service support for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said. “The data is stored for 3 years and is accessible on a ‘need to know’ basis.”

The records are stored and backed up at one of the state’s primary data centers in Tallahassee, a secure disaster recovery facility, according to Rodenbough.

“You have to assume that you’re being recorded 24/7,” Kelly said. “As an agency, we welcome that.”