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Commissioner Calls for Transparency, Demands Explanation For Using "Chinese Spy Cameras"

HERNANDO – Cameras are everywhere and there is no expectation of privacy when you are outside and in a public area, but when the government uses spy cameras to track your every move, that's when people say it violates their right to privacy. That's exactly what Hernando County Commissioner Steve Champion said during a recent Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting regarding the use of surveillance cameras by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.

The issue first came to light in April of this year, when R News received a tip that Sheriff Al Nienhuis sent an email to the BOCC demanding they conceal his clandestine operation involving the use of the Flock Surveillance cameras from the public. When R News requested a copy of the email, the entire document was redacted except for the names of the recipients. (ORIGINAL ARTICLE)

Several Flock cameras are currently erected along Hernando County roadways in several locations, most of which are near high crime areas. But some say he is unjustly targeting neighborhoods with a high population of minorities and low-income families. R News discovered at least one camera at the intersection of Spring Hill Drive and Deltona Blvd, which happens to be near four separate access points to low-income apartment complexes on Omaha Circle.

There are at least seven cameras in and around the Hill 'n Dale community, which also has a high population of minorities. There is no way to access Hill 'n Dale without the Sheriff's Office knowing who you are and when you are coming and going.

Lastly, Nienhuis has strategically placed a camera at the entrance to the Hernando County Jail, presumably to create a database of every person who visits inmates at the detention center or state correctional institution.

One of the issues that opponents of spy cameras have is that all the data collected in Hernando County is available to every law enforcement agency around the country, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The ACLU and other civil rights organizations have been extremely critical of their spy cameras, due to there being virtually no limits or oversight to how they can be used. Additionally, Jengwei Investments, a China-based company that owns several software and data mining companies, is one of Flock's investors, raising serious concerns over national security.

Most local governments require an agency to request permits and provide a terms-of-use policy. For example, in Lake County, when the Board of County Commissioners discovered through social media that the Sheriff's Office had launched a surveillance camera program, they immediately ordered their removal and issued a cease-and-desist letter to Flock Safety. Commissioner Josh Blacke told WKMG 6, Orlando, "It's shocking they even put them in places where they never would've been approved in the first place had they gotten the appropriate approval,"

Four of the five Hernando County Commissioners; Beth Narverud, Jerry Campbell, Brian Hawkins, and John Allocco have never questioned Nienhuis' decision to implement spy cameras. Those same four commissioners refuse to answer the media's questions regarding the spy cameras and neither has Sheriff Nienhuis. That's what prompted Commissioner Champion to speak up during last week's BOCC meeting and demand transparency and accountability in the Sheriff's Office. "Did the Sheriff get permission to put these Chinese cameras on the right of way, because you need permission from the county to do that," said Champion. "Maybe he can present to us what these are for, and I'll have a better understanding, but I doubt there is going to be any explanation that is going to be satisfactory to me." None of the other commissioners provided a substantive response to Champion's remarks but County Administrator Jeff Rogers said he didn't believe the Sheriff needed the BOCC's permission to place cameras on the right of way.

We reached out to Sheriff Al Nienhuis, but he has not responded to our requests for comment.

Candidate for Hernando County Sheriff Joe Puglia told R News, "A system such as Flock can be a valuable tool for law enforcement, absent the fingers of China being a partner. I think it was a bad decision to keep it from the constituents. After all, who gives a darn if the bad guys know we have it? Ultimately, we don't want them here anyway. The optics of total surveillance of every way in and out of Hill N Dale is just plain bad. Now that it is here, it's imperative that the Sheriff implement a policy regarding its use to include consequences for abuse of the system."


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