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Local Ordinances a Powerful Tool to Fight the Surveillance State

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The local, community level movement to bring secret surveillance programs out of the dark and into the public spotlight continues to grow at a rapid pace, potentially impacting the surveillance state at both the local and federal level.

CNN recently picked up on the story, reporting on a proposed ordinance under consideration by the transit authority in the San Francisco Bay area. The BART Surveillance & Community Safety Act would require board approval before the transit authority police or any other BART entity could deploy surveillance equipment.

More than 4,000 people have signed a petition in support of the BART ordinance.

“The goal is to bring surveillance technologies out of the dark, and to stop the patterns where police departments and government agencies are acquiring surveillance in secret and suddenly the public is noticing these devices,” ACLU of Northern California attorney Matt Cagle told CNN.

The BART ordinance is similar to another under consideration by the City of Oakland. The Oakland Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance would require law enforcement agencies get city council approval subsequent to a properly noticed public hearing before obtaining surveillance technology such as stingray devices, automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), cameras and drones.

The process outlined by the proposed ordinances would require full public disclosure. This would create an environment of transparency and accountability, and would naturally limit the types of equipment police departments can acquire.

These proposals are in full accordance with the principles adopted by the Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) initiative. Last fall, local government officials in 11 cities announced plans to launch legislative efforts to pass ordinances that will take the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into a broader national surveillance state. Since the campaign launched, four more cities have signed on.

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. The federal government often provides 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.

As CNN noted, passage of these local ordinances would prevent local police from obtaining technology without public knowledge, and would provide an avenue for concerned residents to oppose and stop the purchase of spy gear.

But CNN got one aspect wrong, asserting that “it would have little effect on federal spying.”

As ACLU Advocacy and Privacy Counsel Chad Marlow said in a tweet, “it does impact the feds.”

Impact on Federal Programs

Information collected by local law enforcement undoubtedly ends up in federal databases. 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.

The federal government encourages and funds surveillance technology including ALPRs, drones and stingrays at the state and local level across the U.S.. In return, it 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.