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Resident's webcam pointed at The Sidetrack removed after backlash over privacy

One of technology entrepreneur Steve Pierce’s webcams recording and streaming footage of Ypsilanti’s downtown has been removed following backlash from a local business.

Sidetrack owner Linda French told The Ann Arbor News she learned from a previous MLive article that Pierce’s webcam system was recording and streaming her business.

She told The Ann Arbor News on Saturday that she wanted it pointed away from her building immediately.

“I take my customers’ privacy very seriously,” she said.

French added that Pierce could very easily have set up the camera to point only at passing trains, but instead it was set up with a wide angle frame that also caught her building. French said that made her suspicious.

The camera was one of six Pierce has recording Ypsilanti’s downtown districts. Pierce, who provides free Internet service in downtown Ypsilanti with Wireless Ypsi, streams the images on cams.ypsi.com. The images are temporarily stored on a cloud only he can access.

French said she initially thought the camera was on the Ypsilanti Food Co-op’s property and part of its private camera system installed by Pierce, so she called the Co-op to ask that it be moved. French said she was told the camera wasn’t a part of the Co-op’s system. The feed came down from the website soon after she called.

It also isn’t clear whether the webcam was legally installed. Pierce previously told The Ann Arbor News he had permission from private property owners to install his webcams, but that camera was placed on a utility pole.

A DTE spokesperson told The Ann Arbor News the pole didn’t belong to the company, and city officials said they don’t know who owns it.

Pierce didn’t return a request for comment about The Sidetrack. On his website, he said that specific camera was a “train cam” designed to record passing trains. But its frame also caught the Cross and River Street intersection, and The Sidetrack building.

Aside from the train cam, Pierce’s webcams monitor several parking lots and their dumpsters; the Washington and Michigan intersection; and a beehive at The Ypsilanti Food Co-op.

Pierce previously stressed that his cameras aren’t up for security purposes.

Instead, he says the webcams showcase the city and are no different than webcams at zoos or those broadcasting images of Old Faithful. He called them “hugely popular” and said he hasn’t heard of any complaints from residents.

However, the webcams and his idea have raised two separate set of concerns.

A camera and solar panel belonging to Steve Pierce installed on a utility pole. Pierce said the camera was up to catch images of passing trains, but it also caught The Sidetrack.  

While the expanding webcam system is legal, such a system controlled by one private resident is new territory in a small city like Ypsilanti.

Most residents approached by The Ann Arbor News in early March said they weren’t aware of the cameras or comfortable with the idea. Many said they found the concept “creepy.”

Those who discussed the issue also said they don’t believe the city’s parking lots, dumpsters and downtown areas that Pierce’s cameras record are an attraction like Yellowstone National Park.

Shelli Weisberg, the legislative director with the ACLU of Michigan, previously confirmed there’s nothing illegal about the cameras as long as they don’t record private property, though she called it “disturbing.” But she said the webcam system is a moral issue, unless city council decides to regulate them.

“There’s not a law but perhaps as a society and culture we should have some discussion and perhaps there’s some moral imperative to look at it … because it’s really bothersome,” Weisberg said.

French said the Sidetrack already has its own security cameras watching its property, but only she and co-owner Jessica French can access them. She said she isn’t comfortable with the idea of Pierce, who has been an active and controversial figure in local politics, recording her customers.

Weisberg previously said it’s that type of scenario that is cause for concern.

“You could put them up to go after political enemies, and I think that’s awful, but it doesn’t seem to be illegal,” she said. “Usually you have a reason to surveil, but to surveil for the sake of surveilling is hard – it’s hard to live in society when everywhere you go you’re being watched.”

Other business owners are also concerned. Doug Winters, Ypsilanti Township’s attorney who has an office that uses the North Huron parking lot where Pierce planted a camera, said he doesn’t fully understand the motivation behind the webcam systems. But he added that someone running such a system has the potential to become a “modern day peeping tom.”

“If it’s a private citizen recording and streaming to the public live, then there’s the potential for misuse and abuse, and city council needs to set forth criteria to regulate how it can be used,” he said.

A second set of concerns is being raised by some Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority officials. They say cameras monitoring the North Huron and North Adams parking lots and their dumpsters use the DDA’s Comcast service, while the rest use private equipment and connections.

That’s a problem with some DDA officials who charge Pierce refused to sign an agreement stating that he won’t sell or repost the images he collects while using DDA’s Comcast service. They also allege that Pierce utilized the DDA’s Comcast service to expand his webcam system in January after he was told not to.

DDA Board Chair Mark Teachout is pushing for the DDA to kick Pierce off its Comcast service.

However, some DDA officials feel it would look bad if they don’t support Pierce because he provides wireless Internet in the downtown districts. The issue boils down to one of the DDA’s image versus privacy concerns, and the DDA will take up the issue at its April meeting.

Pierce disputed that he refused to sign a privacy agreement. He also said the DDA initially told him he could install his cameras, and he misunderstood a subsequent email in which former DDA Director Tim Colbeck instructed him not to proceed with the camera project. He said DDA officials also never questioned him after he installed the cameras.

“From every communication I had, including the public meeting at SPARK on Jan. 13, 2016, everyone at the DDA, including the director, seemed pleased with our work,” Pierce said.

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