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The camel in the room

Many bedtime stories teach important lessons to children and even to adults.  A significant one right now for the citizens of Ridgecrest is “The Arab and His Camel.”  It goes something like this:

An Arab sitting in his warm shelter on a cold desert night notices his camel’s nose under the tent. When the Arab asks what he is doing, the camel tells him he is cold and requests he put his head in also.  As the story progresses, the camel proceeds to get permission to get his neck, his forelegs, and, eventually, his whole body into the tent.  Then he tells his master there is not enough room for the two of them, and since the Arab is smaller, the camel pushes him outside into the cold desert air.

This fable birthed the metaphor, “the camel’s nose is under the tent,” which refers to a situation in which permitting a small, seemingly innocuous act opens the door for larger, clearly undesirable results.

This incremental process has now happened in Ridgecrest’s City Hall Council Chambers on Wednesday nights. The camel has now made its way from certain committee discussions into the Council’s meeting room.  Fortunately, there are a couple of council members and residents who are leery of the character of this camel because even though he is endearing, with his fur-lined ears and long curly lashes, this large animal can also be very dangerous, lifting a person up with its mouth and throwing him down to the ground.   

This camel that has fully entered the council room has a name that starts with an “S.”  Regrettably, he does not have one of those cute conventional dromedary names like “Spitz” or “Smiley.”  This camel’s name is “Surveillance.”

Similar to the first harmless request made by the camel in the story, Surveillance appealed to his master with reasonably sounding pleas.  In this instance, the pleas were: “We need to help Ridgecrest’s economy,”…protect the citizens,” or “…catch the bad guys.”   These were the seemingly innocuous reasons this camel used to make his way further into the city council room throughout the meetings in May.  And, if the Ridgecrest citizens do not speak up, this camel will be allowed to inch its way into their town.

The first appeal, “to help Ridgecrest’s economy,” was made on May 3rd during the Council’s Economic Development Committee report.   As a kind of first-time experiment, Councilman Kyle Blades announced the committee had commissioned an artificial data gathering company,, to gather data from the phones of the participants of Ridgecrest’s first “Night on Balsam” last February.

He stated the commission wanted to “see where we’re bleeding, where we’re losing money…losing business.”’s software, which gathers information “from thousands of [unnamed] mobile apps,” tracked the 4000+ participants’ demographics, the hours they were there, and the restaurants they attended, both before and after the event.  It also gathered information about where people parked and what streets they walked down.

City Manager, Ron Strand, is also on board with the capabilities of  In the May 31st budget meeting, he intimated that this software, which would cost Ridgecrest about $19,000 per year, has the ability to track people going out of town to buy items from certain franchises. He said, for example, “How many times are they going to Kohl’s in Lancaster?” Armed with that information, he can then appeal to these same franchises to set up their shops in Ridgecrest.

Both Blades and Strand are adamant that does not collect any personal data. Still, just a couple of years ago,’s own Privacy Policy stated it shares the phones’ Internet Protocol addresses and device identifiers.  (Their privacy policy was updated in December 2022, and the company now states the above information has not been shared “within the last 12 months,” but “not sharing” does not mean they do not still have the ability to gather information from these sources).

Perhaps the elephant in this same room is that was founded by current CEO Noam Ben-Zvi, who is a dual Israeli-American citizen and a former member of Unit 8200.  According to an article in the Financial Times, Unit 8200 is “Israel’s Cyber Spy Agency.”  Concurring with this information is Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, who notes that Unit 8200 is “the Israeli military intelligence division” and “probably the foremost technical intelligence agency in the world…standing on par with the NSA in everything except scale.”

The second appeal the camel used to get into the Ridgecrest’s council meeting room was “we need to protect the citizens” or “…catch the bad guys.”  This was the appeal used by Strand, a former police officer, who supports Ridgecrest’s use of License Plate Readers (LPRs), which would cost Ridgecrest $70,000 to implement them. During the budget meeting, however, he did not want to discuss the possibility of Ridgecrest employing this technology because, like, “it is a sensitive topic for the public; putting in cameras to read people’s license plates.”  He said he knows when these kinds of things [e.g., LPRs] are implemented, he has to answer questions about privacy. He was waiting for a “white paper” to show what the benefits versus the costs would be.  “Once we get that, we can take it to the committee.”

The possible implementation of both and License Plate Readers in Ridgecrest bears the camel’s name, “Surveillance.”  Realizing the possible ramifications of releasing these technologies onto Ridgecrest’s citizens, Councilman Scott Hayman showed genuine concern.  He recognized that technology is “no doubt useful and has benefits in certain areas,” but he looked at the moral implications of letting this camel roam the city’s streets.  He said, “We’re using data that are benign, but in the big picture of it, we are still participating in possible [immoral use of this data] that should be addressed and openly looked at with caution.”

Helen Tomlin,  News Review Staff Writer