Demanding Transparency About Police Use of Surveillance Technology

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When it comes to “unknown unknowns,” police use of surveillance technology ranks right up there. Although it seems that every week brings news of another local police department adopting another new technology to monitor our words, movement, or relationships online and off. This secrecy is a major impediment to fighting the surveillance state. We can’t demand an end to surveillance we don’t even know about.

That’s why many anti-surveillance activists are also government transparency activists, and that might be most true in California. Last year, privacy advocates nearly passed a statewide measure that would have required state law enforcement to explain to the public why they want surveillance equipment, how they plan to use it, and how they will protect the privacy and civil liberties of residents before acquiring it. California would have been the first state to pass such a measure.

Meanwhile, advocates are fighting for surveillance transparency one city and county at a time. In 2016, Santa Clara county passed the first such ordinance in the country, and on March 13, Berkeley (uninmously) became the first city in the country to do so. According to Oakland Privacy, “the ordinance requires that all surveillance technology proposals first undergo a public discussion to determine the potential benefits, costs, and concerns of such an acquisition and its use in the community, and that the benefits outweigh the costs and concerns. Accountability and ongoing oversight are maintained with annual reporting requirements that will provide the community with information about how the equipment is being used.”

Just a week later, the city of Davis became the second city to pass an ordinance. The Davis City Council unanimously passed the Surveillance Technology Ordinance on March 20.

A strong coalition worked to pass the ordinances. Sameena Usman, government relations coordinator of the Council on American Islamic Relations San Francisco Bay Area Chapter explained why

“It’s important to enact these laws locally because we’re not going to be seeing this kind of direction from the federal government. That’s why we’re taking this local control and deciding how this type technology can be used.”

According to Oakland Privacy, similar ordinances are being considered by the cities of Oakland and Palo Alto, Alameda County, and the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).