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Government Surveillance

Empowering local communities to weigh in on surveillance technologies

Police departments across the country operate surveillance programs using invasive technology such as facial recognition, stingrays, license plate readers, and X-ray vans, often without the knowledge or approval of the public. The Baltimore Police Department used a private contractor to conduct aerial surveillance over the city for eight months before city officials learned about it. Even then, the surveillance only came to the attention of the mayor’s office and city council because of news reports. What happened in Baltimore is not an anomaly. Surveillance programs carried out by local law enforcement agencies often go undisclosed to the public and to elected officials.

The people who are affected by broad surveillance programs, and their elected representatives, should have notice of these programs and the opportunity to review them before they go into effect. That’s why CDT joined 16 other organizations, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, to support Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS). The effort includes a set of principles to help cities develop legislation allowing them to take control of decisions about the funding, acquisition, and use of surveillance technologies. The following principles emphasize the critical role of local communities in the decision-making process and the need for transparency by law enforcement agencies:

  1. Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired, or used without prior express city council approval.
  2. Local communities should play a significant and meaningful role in determining if and how surveillance technologies are funded, acquired, or used.
  3. The process for considering the use of surveillance technologies should be transparent and well-informed.
  4. The use of surveillance technologies should not be approved generally; approvals, if provided, should be for specific technologies and specific, limited uses.
  5. Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired, or used without addressing their potential impact on civil rights and civil liberties.
  6. Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired, or used without considering their financial impact.
  7. To verify legal compliance, surveillance technology use and deployment data should be reported publically on an annual basis.
  8. City council approval should be required for all surveillance technologies and uses; there should be no “grandfathering” for technologies currently in use.

Local democracy can and should provide a crucial check on overly broad law enforcement surveillance. Affected communities should have a voice in decisions about how their communities are policed and surveilled — especially since the use of surveillance technologies disproportionately impacts low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. The goal of the CCOPS campaign is to empower communities to take control and reign in unchecked surveillance at the local level.