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A California Mayor's Firsthand Account of the Need for Surveillance Tech Transparency

Former Mayor of Lemon Grove Mary Sessom has added her voice to the rising chorus for statewide surveillance technology transparency in California.

In a letter to the California state Senate and President pro Tempore Kevin de León in support of S.B. 21, Sessom describes her own pursuit of accurate information about police technology as chair of regional public safety committee in San Diego County. The legislation, she writes, would help policymakers obtain the data they need to make an informed decision about whether the benefits of a particular law enforcement technology are proportionate to the impact on personal privacy. 

S.B. 21 would require law enforcement agencies to seek approval of policies and purchases before acquiring new surveillance technologies. Police would also be required to submit biennial transparency reports, disclosing how a technology has been used, how effective it's been, and whether it's been misused. 

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Here is the text of Sessom's letter:

Dear President pro Tempore de León: 

As you consider S.B. 21, I would like to relate my experience as a local elected official tasked with overseeing the approval of surveillance technology. I can say with little doubt that this important transparency measure deserves your support.

From 1996 to 2016, I served as mayor of Lemon Grove, a city in eastern San Diego County. During my last term as Mayor, I served as chair of the San Diego Association of Government (SANDAG) Public Safety Committee, which reviews shared law enforcement technology throughout the region.

My concerns over some of the technology we were deploying in San Diego County began in 2013, when a local resident sued SANDAG to obtain records on how the county’s automated license plate reader (ALPR) system was capturing his driving patterns.

It felt like we knew very little about the privacy implications of ALPR and other types of data collection being conducted by SANDAG-affiliated agencies. I made it my mission to educate myself on not only ALPRs, but facial recognition, cell-site simulators (also known as “Stingrays”), drones, highway cameras, and Palantir data analytical systems.

I wanted to know: what technologies did we have, how were these technologies used, how were they funded, who controlled it, and who retained the data and for how long? But, even finding answers to these basic questions proved frustrating.  If I asked for a record, law enforcement would provide it — but I had to know that it already existed. If I didn’t know a record existed, nobody volunteered to tell me it was available.

That is why SB.. 21 is crucial: it requires law enforcement agencies to provide the baseline information policymakers need to make responsible decisions about surveillance purchases. It also requires biennial reports on surveillance use, which would provide elected officials a way to gauge whether a particular technology was successful. 

The public wants to know they’re being protected, but they also want to know how far that protection extends and are they comfortable with that extension. For example, with license plate readers, the public may be more comfortable with technology that is tracking suspected criminals. It is our job as elected officials to ask on the public’s behalf, “Do you really need to capture everyone’s travel patterns to do that? If you don’t, then why are you doing it?”  

I can say with absolute certainty that transparency results in better policies being crafted to serve the public. Too often, law enforcement agencies do not even propose a policy at all before purchasing a technology.

S.B. 21 also makes fiscal sense. Any given technology may cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars.  A policy body really needs to understand what it is they’re buying, what the ongoing costs are, and what will be unintended liabilities. That doesn’t happen if the only disclosure about a surveillance program is a line item in a 200-page budget proposal.
In my more than two decades in elected service, technology has rapidly advanced but state laws have struggled to keep up. Elected officials serve the people first and foremost, and they must recognize that acquiring surveillance technology requires a delicate balance between two significant public safety interests. On one hand, the public needs law enforcement to combat crime. On the other, the public needs their privacy, and their sensitive information to remain secure and free from unnecessary collection.

This balance is best achieved through transparency and a public process. SB 21 would go a long ways to ensuring uniform standards of surveillance accountability across the state of California.

I support this legislation, and I urge you to vote aye.

Sincerely,

Mary Sessom
Mayor of Lemon Grove (1996-2016)
SANDAG Public Safety Committee Chair (2012-2014) 
Lemon Grove City Councilmember (1994-1996)

For more information about Sessom's experience, see UC Berkeley School of Law Prof. Catharine Crump's paper, "Surveillance Policy Making by Procurement," which features the SANDAG Public Safety Committee as one of three case studies. 

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