GREEN BAY (WLUK) – FOX 11 has obtained 90 minutes of video and audio from Green Bay City Hall’s surveillance system, which has been the subject of controversy and accusations of invasion of privacy.
A Green Bay resident who obtained the city hall surveillance recordings through an open records request shared them with FOX 11. That person wishes to remain anonymous, but says the request was made to confirm Green Bay’s use of audio surveillance at city hall.
FOX 11 has reviewed the recordings. After consulting with our own corporate attorney, we are not sharing the audio due to legal and privacy concerns. We are also blurring the faces of those in the recording.
Green Bay city administrators have said they installed microphones for safety reasons.
However, some city council members and outside attorneys claim the surveillance violates state and federal laws.
“It’s disgusting,” said Alderperson Chris Wery during a February 7th city council meeting. “Big brother is listening and we the people are not amused.”
Many people learned of the microphones when Wery confronted Mayor Eric Genrich at the beginning of that February 7th city council meeting.
Genrich’s administration confirmed the microphones were put in between winter 2021 and summer of 2022.
In the last week, the city denied requests to disable the microphones and delete any recordings.
Those requests came from an attorney representing the Wisconsin State Senate, who is now telling the city to keep any relevant material for a potential lawsuit.
The recording FOX 11 reviewed is from the first-floor hallway of city hall, just outside the city clerk’s office. It is from November 8th, the day of the midterm election, and goes between 11:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.
This is one of three locations where microphones were installed, the others being in the second-floor hallway, outside of the city council chambers and the mayor’s office.
In FOX 11’s review of the recordings, most conversations we could not clearly hear what people were saying due to either the microphone sounding over modulated or other ambient sound interfering with what was being said.
However, other conversations were not distorted like one near the reception desk. We could clearly hear two people talking about a pizza delivery.
At the end of the hallway, we could clearly hear more personal conversations between individuals discussing medical issues.
Whether a conversation like that is legally private will potentially be decided in a court room.
The State Senate’s attorney has alluded to taking this issue that direction, while the mayor’s administration has never wavered from its stance that it believes it is operating lawfully.
“We have millions of video surveillance cameras all around this country and almost none of them have microphones on them and it’s because our wiretapping laws, federal and state wiretapping laws, make it legally difficult to record audio conversations in public,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington D.C.
Stanley has been researching technology-related privacy and civil liberties issues for the ACLU for more than 20 years. FOX 11 spoke with Stanley on February 9th, right after most people first learned about Green Bay’s audio surveillance at city hall.
“There are certain circumstances where people may have no reasonable expectation of privacy, but it’s not legal under the wiretapping laws to record a conversation where at least one of the participants hasn’t consented,” said Stanley.
One party consent is the law in Wisconsin.
A memo from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council states the law’s factors for reasonable expectation of privacy are volume of statements, proximity of individuals to the speaker, potential for the communication to be reported, actions taken by speaker to ensure privacy, need to employ technological enhancements to hear the speaker, and place or location where statements are made.
“To have audio recording that people are not aware of in a city hall of all places is potentially a very serious privacy invasion,” said Stanley. “This is the first I’ve heard of audio recording in a political place like a city hall or a legislature.”
“These are pretty standard surveillance systems that we have here in order to keep the public safe when they are on public property here,” said Genrich in a February 7th interview with FOX 11.
When an attorney for Wisconsin’s State Senate claimed Green Bay’s microphones were illegal, the city issued a statement saying “the Senate mischaracterizes the audio devices as “extremely sensitive audio-recording devices” in order to raise questions about its legality. The security cameras are limited to public spaces in City hall without any continuous monitoring by City staff.”
The mayor’s administration put up signs at the end of this past week, warning city hall visitors of audio recording.
City council members have said they were never consulted when the microphones were put in or whether to disable them amid the recent controversy.