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Proposed Cambridge Privacy Ordinance Would Take First Step Toward Limiting Surveillance State

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Dec. 7, 2016) – The Cambridge city council will consider an ordinance that would 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.

Late last month, the council adopted a policy order that would require the police department to get city council approval before purchasing or borrowing any surveillance technology, or using any new or existing technology in a manner not previously authorized. Law enforcement would also have to get council approval before even soliciting proposals to acquire or use surveillance technology or data. The ordinance would require a public meeting before the council made its final decision.

“What this does is provide a framework for the council to review surveillance technology and decide whether it’s really in the public interest or not,” Cambridge resident Saul Tannenbaum told wickedlocal.com.

The order was referred to the Cambridge City Council Ordinance Committee for future public hearings.

Just weeks before the ordinance was proposed, public records obtained by MuckRock revealed the Cambridge P.D. participated in a year-long trial with the social media tracking software Snaptrends beginning in 2015.

Snaptrends software enables police to monitor social media posts in a specific area and pulls information from social networks including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Foursquare. The company’s website describes the software’s analytical capabilities.

Social media consists of conversations, networks, and information – a lot of information. Snaptrends helps you truly analyze and understand the meaning behind that information with our automated analysis capabilities and informative charts and graphs. We help you dive into the data, revealing actionable insights.

According to documents obtained in the open records request, the Cambridge Police Department spent $9,900 on Snaptrends. The proposed ordinance would have prevented the police from using this invasive technology without public knowledge and council oversight.

Cambridge follows the lead of nearly a dozen communities that have committed to considering this type of ordinance as part of the #TakeCTRL initiative.

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.

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 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.”

The Cambridge ordinance 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.

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.

The proposed Cambridge ordinance takes an important first step toward limiting the use of surveillance technology in the city.