Oakland Residents Now Protected By The 'Strongest' Surveillance Oversight Law 'In The Country'

from the and-there-was-much-rejoicing dept

After years of deploying surveillance tech with minimal oversight and zero public notice (sometimes even city lawmakers were cut out of the loop), law enforcement agencies are being reined in by their overseers. Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica reports Oakland, CA city governance is putting residents first for a change, joining a few other California cities in efforts to reduce surveillance tech abuse and increase public accountability.

Late Tuesday evening, the Oakland City Council formally approved a new city ordinance that imposes community control over the use of surveillance technology in the city.

Oakland is now one of a number of California cities, including Berkeley and Davis, that mandates a formal annual report that details “how the surveillance technology was used,” among other requirements.

The city itself caught some heat for a 2013 plan to turn the city into London, UK (West Coast, USA Edition). The proposed “Domain Awareness Center” would have provided law enforcement with access to a network of more than 1,000 cameras. To make matter worse, the proposed system would have been cobbled together by SAIC, a government contractor with a sordid history of fraud, bribery, and shoddy workmanship. SAIC was behind a $600 million custom computer system ordered by the FBI. When it finally arrived, late and overbudget, it was so worthless the agency immediately scrapped the system and hired a different contractor.

The backlash from this attempt to place most of the city under round-the-clock surveillance has prompted a change of heart in city leadership. The new ordinance [PDF] opens with several declarations, including this one, which indicates city governance recognizes the inherent downside of pervasive surveillance.

WHEREAS, the City Council finds that, while the use of surveillance technology may threaten the privacy of all citizens, throughout history, surveillance efforts have been used to intimidate and oppress certain communities and groups more than others, including those that are defined by a common race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, income level, sexual orientation or political perspective…

Following the declarations are the specifics. Lots of them. Reporting requirements are robust and thorough, demanding law enforcement agencies provide info on data gathered, who data was shared with, what was disclosed, how surveillance tech is being deployed, and where in the city these devices and methods have been put to use. The ordinance also requires periodic audits to check for violations, unauthorized access, and demands law enforcement agencies assess the impact these devices are having (if any) on reducing crime.

The new ordinance — written with the ACLU’s assistance — passed unanimously. It has the support of city leaders and city residents. How much support it has in the law enforcement community remains to be seen.

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Comments on “Oakland Residents Now Protected By The 'Strongest' Surveillance Oversight Law 'In The Country'”

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9 Comments
mj says:

Re: new law

… yeah, and strange that the City government administers internal City policy by enacting new laws rather than just using normal administrative rules issued by City leadership.

Why does the City have to enact a new law to get its Police Dept to do what they want?

Sounds like the Oakland Mayor & City Council don’t really directly control their Police Dept.

“independent” local police departments are a really bad idea, but common now — police municipal unions exercise a lot of power and local politicians rarelt challenge them.

Sharur (profile) says:

Re: Re: new law

Perhaps I’m cynical but in the small town where I grew up (which may not be corrupt, but doesn’t have term limits and has the same city council for 20+ years), there was a joke/not joke:

“Actual stuff gets handled by rules and regulations, laws are for when the city council wants to be in the headlines”.

So it may just be the city council trying to make noise to counteract their prior bad press.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: new law

Why does the City have to enact a new law to get its Police Dept to do what they want?

Does this only affect the police, and only Oakland’s local PD? The linked story doesn’t say, but mentions the abuses of the federal government. Could a local law do anything about it? What about private surveillers?

Anonymous Coward says:

as valued as law enforcement obviously is and as much as everyone wants to be safe everywhere they are and everywhere they go, there shouldn’t be any circumstance that puts privacy, freedom, freedom of speech or any other circumstance on which a democracy is built, down the list in favor of being surveilled everywhere, all the time by anyone, including law enforcement agencies!!

That One Guy (profile) says:

"You're not allowed to do that!" "... so?"

The ordinance also requires periodic audits to check for violations, unauthorized access, and demands law enforcement agencies assess the impact these devices are having (if any) on reducing crime.

Most importantly, does it have clearly laid out penalties for non-compliance and/or violations, and someone willing and able to apply them?

Setting out clear rules as to what they can and cannot do is a good start, but if the police feel safe in ignoring said rules then they’re not really going to accomplish much.

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