On Wednesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a surveillance technology ordinance that sets the stage to limit the acquisition and use of spy gear by law enforcement and other county agencies. It also highlights a strategy that can be used to take on federal surveillance programs.
Under the new ordinance, local law enforcement agencies in the county must get board approval prior to purchasing new surveillance technology or implementing existing technology in new ways. It also requires any agency using such technology to inventory, standardize and publicly disclose their digital data collection systems, and to establish and enforce safeguards governing data retention and access.
Restore the Fourth initiated the effort to get the ordinance passed with three primary goals in mind.
– Require public debate and a usage regulation before the equipment is deployed
– Require annual reporting of how the surveillance technologies are being used
– Require criminal penalties if these regulations are intentionally avoided
According to National Board Secretary and Chair of RT4 San Francisco Bay Area Zaki Manian, the Santa Clara County ordinance accomplishes all three goals. Passage of the county law sets the stage to drastically limit the use of surveillance technology in the county and to keep the data law enforcement does collect from being widely shared.
“We think that the passage of this law will introduce a firewall against the secret adoption of current and future surveillance technologies like mass biometric collection. Our next steps are to pass similar ordinances in communities across the country. The process has already started in Palo Alto, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Alameda. Today’s unanimous vote will massively accelerate the process,” Manian said.
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Passage of the ordinance was the result of cooperation between several grassroots groups along with Restore the Fourth, including ACLU Northern California’s and the Oakland Privacy Working Group.
Manian said other localities can use the success in Santa Clara as a model.
We’re encouraged by Santa Clara County’s vote for transparency and community involvement in decisions around surveillance and civil liberties. We hope that Santa Clara’s Surveillance Technology Ordinance may also serve as a model for nationwide, locally-driven surveillance reform efforts which aim to strengthen privacy protections and improve policing practices.
Impact on Federal Surveillance
Ordinances like the one passed in Santa Clara County also undermine the federal surveillance state. The federal government funds much of the surveillance technology acquired by state and local law enforcement. In return, federal agencies tap into the data swept up by these agencies through information sharing agreements and fusion centers. Information gathered by your local police department often ends up permanently stored in federal databases. These create the backbone of the federal surveillance state.
Manian described the local ordinance as part of a wider strategy to take on federal spying.
“Our idea was to block a strategy by which mass surveillance had been quietly creeping into our communities. The federal government had been quietly funding local police departments’ purchases of powerful surveillance technologies that were deployed with great secrecy. These included cell phone interception equipment and automatic license plate readers. Our strategy for blocking these technologies was to encourage municipalities to start to regulate surveillance technology in the broadest possible manner.”
Passage of an ordinance in one locality may not seem significant. But when multiplied over hundreds of cities and counties across the United States, this strategy could seriously undermine federal surveillance programs. If local police can’t collect and share the data, it cannot end up in federal databases.