City of Cambridge Passes Ordinance Taking on Surveillance State

By Michael Maharrey

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Dec. 17, 2018) – The City of Cambridge, Mass., has passed an ordinance that sets the stage to limit the acquisition and use of spy gear by law enforcement and other city agencies.

On Dec. 10, the Cambridge City Council passed an ordinance requiring its explicit approval before any city government agency can acquire, fund or use surveillance technologies. This includes, but is not limited to, automatic license plate readers, video surveillance, biometric surveillance technology including facial and voice recognition software and databases, social media monitoring software, police body-worn cameras, and predictive policing software. City departments seeking to use a previously-acquired surveillance technology in a new way must also receive council approval.

As part of the approval process, the agency seeking to use surveillance technology must produce and make public a detailed plan outlining its capabilities, how precisely it would be used, how its data would be preserved and protected, its acquisition and operational costs, and how potential adverse impacts on civil rights and civil liberties will be prevented.

Passage of the ordinance was the culmination of nearly two years of work by the Massachusetts ACLU and other grassroots privacy advocates.

“We commend the City of Cambridge for passing an ordinance that will empower residents and their local elected officials to bring community control over police surveillance,” ACLU of Massachusetts executive director Carol Rose  said in a press release. “Far too often, police departments across Massachusetts and the country obtain invasive, costly surveillance equipment without any meaningful transparency or oversight. This ordinance charts against that trend, requiring public engagement before the Cambridge police can acquire surveillance technology like drones and cell phone tracking devices.”

The Cambridge ordinance was based on model legislation developed by the ACLU with input from the Tenth Amendment Center. Cambridge is one of multiple cities that introduced measures as part of the #TakeCTRL initiative. A similar ordinance passed in Santa Clara County in 2016. BerkeleyDavis and Oakland passed similar measures earlier this year.


Local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, many law enforcement agencies can obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight. Police often operate highly intrusive surveillance technology in complete secrecy.

The federal government facilitates local surveillance through grants and other funding sources for this spy-gear, meaning local governments can keep their purchase “off the books.” Members of the community, and even elected officials, often don’t know their police departments possess technology capable of sweeping up electronic data, phone calls and location information.

In some cases, the feds even require law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements, wrapping surveillance programs in an even darker shroud of secrecy. We know for a fact the FBI required the Baltimore Police Department to sign such an agreement when it obtained stingray technology. This policy of nondisclosure even extends to the courtroom, with the feds actually instructing prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions about the department’s use of stingray devices on the stand during a trial, citing a federal nondisclosure agreement.

As put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”

Ordinances like the one approved in Cambridge create a framework of oversight and transparency for surveillance programs. They also set the stage to limit surveillance by giving residents input into the process and allowing them to oppose and stop the purchase of spy-gear.

Impact on Federal Surveillance

Passage of local ordinances not only protects the privacy of people in that area. They 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.

The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, local data collection using ALPRs, stingrays and other technologies create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans, and obtain and store information on millions of Americans, including phone calls, emails, web browsing history and text messages, all with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.

By facilitating local surveillance, the federal government undoubtedly gains access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By requiring approval and placing the acquisition of spy gear in the public spotlight, local governments can take the first step toward limiting the surveillance state at both the local and national level.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

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.

Michael Maharrey [send him email] is the Communications Director for the Tenth Amendment Center, where this article first appeared. He proudly resides in the original home of the Principles of ’98 – Kentucky. See his blog archive here and his article archive here. He is the author of the book, Our Last Hope: Rediscovering the Lost Path to Liberty. You can visit his personal website at and like him on Facebook HERE

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