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Local Surveillance Ordinance: Step One for Taking on the Surveillance State

The surveillance state continues to expand at breakneck speed with more and more local law enforcement agencies obtaining high-tech spy gear such as stingray devices, automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), sophisticated cameras and drones.

A newly developed local ordinance takes the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into a broader national surveillance state. This proposed legislation requires law enforcement agencies to get the approval from their local governing body before obtaining equipment any type of surveillance technology.

The process outlined by the ordinance requires full public disclosure before a law enforcement agency procures any surveillance gear and mandates an opportunity for the community to weigh in before the governing body makes its decision. This would create an environment of transparency and accountability, and would naturally limit the types of equipment police departments can acquire.

The ordinance also includes provisions requiring approval for the continued use of existing technology. Additionally, it features reporting requirements for any approved surveillance gear and a publicly available analysis of the full cost of the technology.

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 – sometimes in complete secrecy. 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.

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 stingray device on the stand during a trial, citing a federal nondisclosure agreement.

As privacysos.org 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.”

Impact on Federal Programs

Passage of this ordinance will not only protect privacy within the local community. It will also hinder the growing federal surveillance state.

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.

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.

Through the ISE, local data collection using ALPRs, stingrays and other technologies create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of, and obtain and store information on millions of Americans. This includes phone calls, emails, web browsing history, text messages and biometric data, all with no warrant, no probable cause, and without people even knowing it.

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.

A First Step

Passage of an ordinance requiring local government approval for procurement of surveillance technology, along with the transparency and accountability that goes along with it, represents a solid first step toward dismantling the surveillance state. Having set a precedent for limiting law enforcement use of spy gear, local governments can follow up by banning certain types of surveillance technology completely.

Local action also puts pressure on the state legislature. If enough cities pass local ordinances, it becomes more likely the state will act by imposing warrant requirements, limiting the use of certain types of surveillance equipment and banning some spy gear all together. Starting with a more easily manageable local effort, activists can take on Big Brother through a bottom up strategy that builds momentum with each small victory.