Balancing Privacy and Public Safety is Tough Business But Local Governments Are Doing It

From cell phone tracking devices to license plate readers, the rapid advance of technology has proven to be an indispensable crime fighting tool. But it also presents an array of ever growing civil liberties concerns.

Faced with these legal and ethical challenges, local governments across the nation -- including many right here in California -- are now drawing lines in the sand. Steps are being taken to ensure transparency and accountability in the era of big policing tech.

Over the past five years, a growing number of local governments have begun to pass laws demanding transparency and accountability around the use of surveillance technologies and other data-gathering technologies in their communities. Santa Clara County, California; Nashville, Tennessee; Seattle; Somerville, Massachusetts; Berkeley, California; and Davis, California have all adopted ordinances and policies similar to Oakland’s. More than a dozen other municipal, city, and state governments are considering similar bills, and more than 30 civil rights and civil liberties organizations recently announced support for a bill in California that would impose similar requirements on every local government in the state.

This steady spread of what some have described as “privacy localism” has been encouraged through the work of the Community Control Over Police Surveillance coalition, led by the ACLU. That coalition has proposed a model bill to establish a system by which localities can govern and oversee the use of police surveillance technologies. The ACLU’s Northern California affiliate also published a guide for local governments that are considering whether and how to regulate surveillance in their communities, which has helped carry the idea even further.

Each of these ordinances differ, but most of them share a few commonalities:

1. They require local government approval before the purchasing of controversial surveillance equipment by police departments.

2. They open the matter up to public discussion and input beforehand.

3. The department must specify how the equipment will be used, typically alongside a community impact evaluation.

In many cases, communities develop a set of rules and guidelines also specifying how the technology may not be employed.

In addition to requiring approval of surveillance tech, local governments are also starting to demand transparency around its use. Seattle, Berkeley, Oakland, and Santa Clara County all require law enforcement to publish reports on when and how frequently surveillance technologies were used, what data were collected, how data were shared, compliance with data security standards, and the sufficiency of those standards. Seattle, Berkeley, and Oakland also require reporting on whether the deployment of surveillance technologies disparately impacted particular communities such as communities of color, immigrant communities, or minority religious communities—a crucial but often overlooked component of oversight. Oakland has taken an additional step to guard against violations of public trust and of use policies by prohibiting nondisclosure agreements with surveillance-tech vendors and incorporating robust whistleblower protections.

Read more at Slate


Top Stories

Thursday, August 6, 2020 - 10:12

In a sudden news release Wednesday evening, CalPERS announced the departure of Chief Investment Officer Yu Ben Meng. He was hired less than two years ago.

Special Reports

Tuesday, July 28, 2020 - 04:54

COVID-19 has made it difficult to estimate even the near-term revenue shortfalls for your jurisdiction, but there are opportunities to identify specific revenue streams that will help offset the de