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New recording system in East Providence City Hall raises flags with ACLU

EAST PROVIDENCE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island says it is concerned that a system recording audio and video in the City Clerk’s office may be illegally capturing some conversations between visitors in the room.

ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown wrote to Mayor Roberto L. DaSilva earlier this month, after receiving a complaint from someone visiting City Hall who saw a sign indicating that video and audio surveillance was taking place.

“It caught our attention, because if true, it raises extremely significant and serious privacy issues,” Brown said in an interview last week. “Rhode Island law, like most other states, bars wiretapping, which essentially is what this is. At least one person must consent to a recording of their voice.”


In his letter, Brown asked DaSilva for more information about the system and asked that he “take immediate steps to address the legitimate privacy concerns that this surveillance technology raises.”

DaSilva, in a three-page response to Brown, wrote that a video system has been in place since 2014, but that audio in the clerk’s office was added several weeks ago after “a few customer complaints related to their interactions with city employees.”


“Please be assured that the City believes that its use and placement of cameras and audio recordings is fully compliant and consistent with ‘reasonable expectations of privacy’ and various statutory requirements,” DaSilva said in his letter to Brown.

Mayor DaSilva: Audio recording is 'a quality-control measure'

DaSilva said the audio “is directed to the front counter facing where the public would interact with city staff.”


In an interview with The Hummel Report on Monday afternoon, the mayor said: “We put it in place as a quality-control measure, really, to not only protect the citizens who come in and deal with our employees, but to protect our employees.”


The mayor said the city believes that the expectation of privacy is extremely low when in a public building and a sign at the counter that says “Closed Circuit Television and Audio Monitoring on Premises” gives visitors adequate notice of recordings. Another sign, a few feet away says “Attention: Surveillance Cameras and Audio Recording are in use.”


DaSilva said, “There’s no real expectation of privacy in the workplace. People shouldn’t be talking about things that they don’t want other people overhearing. It’s a public building.”


Brown told DaSilva that notice is not the same as consent.

“Nor do we believe that the City could require patrons to consent to be recorded as a condition of receiving services at City Hall,” the ACLU director wrote.


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Brown said in his more than three decades with the ACLU in Rhode Island he has not heard of any municipality installing a system to record audio in public buildings. 


“There’s a reason we haven’t heard about this before," Brown said. "It’s because nobody else does it.”

Brown also questioned whether conversations in the hallway between the first-floor clerk’s office and Municipal Court, located in the council chambers across the way, might capture conversations among attorneys and their clients.

“The City Clerk’s office audio does not extend beyond the main doorway into the lobby area outside of the City Council chamber,” DaSilva wrote. “Therefore, any concern about capturing litigant conversations with their attorneys is not well grounded.”


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Brown and DaSilva agree on one thing: that the city should have a written policy about the system. “We’re not aware of any policies that have been put in place by the city before installing this system and that itself is a red flag,” Brown said in our interview.


DaSilva responded that he had instructed his Law Department to craft a policy that will outline when the video and audio can be accessed. Specifically, only by a written request from a department head; that the system not be continuously monitored and a pass code needed for access; and that the system loops and rerecords after 30 days.


Expectation of privacy

After receiving the letter, Brown told The Hummel Report Monday afternoon: “I appreciate that they’re going to put a policy together. At same time we strongly disagree with the city’s view that merely being in a public building eliminates the public’s expectation of privacy in their building.”


Brown said he still is waiting for the city to fulfill an Access to Public Records Act request he filed earlier this month before deciding whether the ACLU considers taking legal action. He asked the city for details about the recording system, emails or communications to city employees about it, and any communication to the public about the recording system.


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