Citizens need more say over police surveillance technology

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
November 21, 2016

Palo Alto lawmakers have proposed legislation granting the community greater control over police surveillance — including the Police Department’s purchase and use of equipment such as drones, license plate readers and social media monitoring software. Palo Alto and 10 other cities around the country that have proposed similar laws are part of a movement to bring the community and elected representatives into decisions by local police to acquire such powerful and invasive surveillance technologies. We all should urge our own elected representatives to take similar steps.

Police today have access to a dazzling array of new technologies that allow them to easily track the activity and movement of large swaths of the population. These technologies have valuable uses to combat crime, but they also can be abused. They can be used to track people for political or voyeuristic purposes, to gather private information without adequate suspicion of criminal activity, or to target racial and ethnic minority groups.

The federal government often pays for cities and towns to purchase new surveillance equipment. For example, federal agencies paid for a drone for the San Jose Police Department. The federal government paid for the Oakland Police Department’s “Domain Awareness Center,” which was supposed to integrate surveillance equipment from across Oakland into a single facility for monitoring and data analysis. But the federal government generally does not require that local elected officials be involved in deciding what to buy.

This can lead to police departments acquiring technologies that the community would reject or subject to strict controls if given the choice. In San Jose, members of the public were quite concerned when they learned of the Police Department’s drone, and compelled the department to ground it until the City Council approved a policy for its use. In June, Santa Clara County adopted an ordinance that requires county officials to analyze the privacy impact of the technology they wish to acquire, and to submit a policy limiting how it can be used, for approval.. Residents of Oakland forced the city to substantially cut back its Domain Awareness Center once they understood its purpose.

Read the full piece at the San Francisco Chronicle