The Northern California cities of Berkeley and Davis began the year with successful community efforts to demand transparency and oversight in their community’s acquisition of surveillance technology. With tax season just days behind us, U.S. communities continue to focus on gaining control and transparency over whether their hard-earned tax dollars are used to acquire surveillance technologies that threaten our fundamental privacy, disparately burden people of color, and threaten immigrant communities.
Community organizers in the East Bay—having already successfully defeated plans to have the Port of Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center expand into a city-wide surveillance apparatus—are well-poised to make Oakland the next U.S. city to adopt a law that would ensure substantial community controls over law enforcement acquisition and use of surveillance technology.
The power to decide whether these tools are acquired, and how they are used, should not stand unilaterally with agency executives. Instead, elected City Council members should be empowered with the authority to decide whether to approve or reject surveillance technology. Most importantly, all residents must be provided an opportunity to comment on proposed surveillance technologies, and the policies guiding their use, before representatives decide whether to adopt them.
Oakland’s Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance enshrines these rights by requiring that city agencies submit use policies to the City Council for approval before acquiring surveillance technology, and that the City Council provide notice and an opportunity for public comment before approving these requests. To assure compliance, and that any approved equipment does indeed serve its stated purpose, the law would additionally require annual use reports including any violations of the existing policy.
In many cities across the country, local law enforcement and other city agencies acquire surveillance technology—such as cell-site simulators, automated license plate readers (ALPR), and face recognition equipment—with little or no oversight or public input. In some cases, manufacturers require city agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements prohibiting the sharing of basic information about the types of equipment, the equipment’s capabilities, how the equipment is used, and how much it cost. Compounding this problem, many agencies lack use policies outlining how and under what circumstances the equipment may be used, or with what outside entities information collected by the technology may be shared.
Many communities are increasingly worried that surveillance technologies are a threat to immigrant communities. For example, the City of Alameda recently sidelined a proposal to expand its ALPR system, because of resident concerns that the resulting ALPR data might be used for immigration enforcement against their neighbors.
Since the early days of the fight to rein in the expansion of Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center, we have worked alongside local and national partners, including our Electronic Frontier Alliance ally Oakland Privacy, on empowering communities to take control of surveillance equipment policy and acquisition. These coalitions have supported cities across the United States in proposing ordinances that would provide transparency, accountability, and oversight measures.
In April, the City of Oakland’s Public Safety Committee voted unanimously to approve the proposed Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance. With this strong show of support from the committee and the community, the ordinance is expected to go before the full City Council as soon as Tuesday, May 1.
As we wrote in the letter of support we submitted along with the Freedom of The Press Foundation in May 2017:
Public safety requires trust between government and the community served. To ensure that trust, Oakland needs a participatory process for deciding whether or not to adopt new government surveillance technologies, and ongoing transparency and oversight of any adopted technologies.
As federal agencies continue to erode our privacy, and target our Muslim and immigrant neighbors, we must insist that state and local elected officials take every opportunity to protect our most basic civil rights and civil liberties.
Oakland residents should contact their city council representative, and urge them to vote to pass the Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance. Across the U.S., Electronic Frontier Alliance allies are building support for similar transparency and oversight measures within their own cities and towns. To join an Electronic Frontier Alliance member organization in your community, or to find out how your group can become a member, visit eff.org/fight.