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St. Louis Ordinance Would Take First Step Toward Limiting the Surveillance State

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (July 3, 2017) – Passage of a proposed St. Louis ordinance 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.

Alderman Terry Kennedy introduced Board Bill 66 last month. The proposed ordinance would require St. Louis police and other city entities to get Board of Aldermen approval of a publicly presented plan before obtaining and using surveillance technology.

Any City entity that determines to have, operate, contract, borrow, share, participate in and/or create a Surveillance Program, modify the use, functionality or capacity of an existing Surveillance Program, or enter into an agreement involving mutual assistance in which personnel using such technology are shared inter-jurisdictionally, shall first create a Surveillance Program Plan that shall be submitted to the Board of Aldermen for approval before implementation.

Within 60 days of submitting the plan, the entity would be required to hold “one or more well-publicized and conveniently located community engagement meetings at which the general public is invited to discuss and ask questions regarding the Surveillance Program Plan.”

The ordinance covers a vast array of spy-gear, including cell site simulators, automatic license plate readers, surveillance cameras, hacking tools, through-the-wall radar, and biometric surveillance technology including voice recognition, facial recognition software and iris scanners.

The ordinance would require any departments currently using surveillance tools to present such information to the board within 120 days after the measure is enacted.

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 proposed St. Louis ordinance would prevent local police from obtaining technology without public knowledge, and 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 St. Louis ordinance takes an important first step toward limiting the use of surveillance technology in the city.