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It is not easy to control the use of technology by the police, even with a law

By on September 24, 2021 0

In 2018, Oakland enacted an innovative law giving citizens a voice in the police use of surveillance technology. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called it “the new benchmark in community control of police surveillance.” Since then, around 20 other cities have passed similar laws.

Now Brian Hofer, one of Oakland’s Law Architects, says it’s not working. Earlier this month, Hofer filed a complaint against the city and the police department, claiming they had repeatedly broken the law.

“We ignored human nature,” Hofer said in an interview. “The police don’t like to be transparent. The use of surveillance technology is by design secret, and no interested party will willfully bring out anything negative about their own proposal. An Oakland Police Department spokesperson said he was not commenting on the ongoing legal issues.

Even in Oakland, however, the law has given a platform to criticism of police surveillance. Indeed, Hofer has filed a lawsuit under a provision in the law that allows citizens to sue the city. He hopes this will lead to the appointment of an independent lawyer to review the police department’s data and the surveillance technology assessment.

“Like any law, [the surveillance ordinance] must be applied, ”said Matt Cagle, lawyer in the Technology and Civil Liberties program at the ACLU of Northern California. “That’s why it’s so great to see people from Oakland and San Francisco using it to take the police to court.”

A national review of laws – dubbed CCOPS, for community oversight of police oversight – suggests other small successes. In Nashville, opposition from a community group created by such a law has stopped, at least temporarily, a city proposal to purchase automated license plate readers.

The laws vary in their specifics. Some require regular meetings between police and community members, annual audits of effectiveness and potential bias, greater vendor transparency and the cost to taxpayers of any new technology, and a period of public comment beforehand. to buy new technologies such as body cameras or ShotSpotter, which uses microphones to detect gunshots.

In a student white paper released earlier this year, the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the Berkeley School of Law said many ordinances are weaker than those in Oakland. New York City and Grand Rapids do not allow citizens to file complaints, as Oakland does. In six jurisdictions, including Cambridge, Massachusetts and Palo Alto, California, police are exempt from the rules. So while a library or school should allow public comment on new surveillance tools, police are exempt from restrictions if they are executing a warrant or responding to a crisis.

Most cities give the police considerable latitude to use surveillance technology in “urgent circumstances”. Students Tyler Takemoto and Ari Chivukula, authors of the white paper, say this can create loopholes in citizen surveillance.

“We know that different local governments considered, for example, that the racial justice uprisings last summer fell under this category of mitigating emergency circumstances,” Takemoto said.

Recognizing that there is no perfect combination of rules, the authors suggest that such ordinances empower citizens to sue and create independent bodies to oversee the police and provide support. “Perhaps the most important thing is the outside council… a local nonprofit or community group that will stay engaged,” says Chivukula. “If you don’t have public engagement, then there is no pressure.”

The movement in Oakland to restrict police surveillance began in 2014, when groups such as the ACLU and EFF protested against a proposed “Domain Awareness Center,” a fusion center combining microphones, video surveillance and surveillance data. .

Originally created for port security, the city was moving towards approving a city-wide expansion. Rights groups successfully campaigned to reverse the expansion and create a temporary privacy committee that would draft policies for the city’s use of technology. This became a first iteration of the CCOPS model.

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