ACLU of California’s Smart About Surveillance Report: A Smart Way to Fight Local Spying

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EFF.orgThink you know how your local cops are spy­ing on you? The ACLU of California’s “Mak­ing Smart Deci­sions About Sur­veil­lance: A Guide for Com­mu­ni­ties” is a new resource that can help you fig­ure out what sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy is being deployed in your community—and what you can do about it. And as we’ve point­ed out, while we hope every­one con­tin­ues to let Con­gress know that it’s time for real changes to spy­ing by fed­er­al agen­cies, the use of sur­veil­lance tech­niques and tech­nol­o­gy by local law enforce­ment is an area ripe for grass­roots orga­niz­ing.

Although the guide is specif­i­cal­ly direct­ed at Cal­i­for­nia, it con­tains a wealth of infor­ma­tion and ideas that are help­ful for grass­roots activists across the coun­try who are con­cerned about the pro­lif­er­a­tion of drones, auto­mat­ed license plate read­ers, facial recog­ni­tion, and more in their com­mu­ni­ty. From Wash­ing­ton state to Wash­ing­ton D.C., the mod­el ordi­nance and tips are use­ful for any con­cerned residents. 

The guide focus­es on the need for com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment, not­ing: “[T]he time to engage with your com­mu­ni­ty is at the very begin­ning of the process, before any fund­ing is sought, tech­nol­o­gy is acquired or sys­tem is used.”

For­tu­nate­ly, ACLU pro­vides a step by step process activists can take to ensure this hap­pens, explain­ing how to do a “sur­veil­lance impact report.” The process includes an assess­ment of all costs—including poten­tial costs to civ­il liberties:

Sur­veil­lance can eas­i­ly intrude upon the rights of res­i­dents and vis­i­tors if it is used, or cre­ates the per­cep­tion that it may be used, to mon­i­tor indi­vid­u­als and groups exer­cis­ing their rights to free­dom of expres­sion, asso­ci­a­tion, and reli­gion — free­doms that pub­lic offi­cials are sworn to pro­tect. In addi­tion, sur­veil­lance can erode trust in law enforce­ment, mak­ing it hard­er for offi­cers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers to work togeth­er to keep the com­mu­ni­ty safe.

We were espe­cial­ly pleased to see the focus on under­stand­ing tech­nol­o­gy. The guide rec­om­mends that a sur­veil­lance impact report include “infor­ma­tion describ­ing the tech­nol­o­gy, how it works, and what it col­lects, includ­ing tech­nol­o­gy spec­i­fi­ca­tion sheets from manufacturers.”

This is an issue that we repeat­ed­ly empha­sized dur­ing the fight around Oakland’s Domain Aware­ness Cen­ter, a sur­veil­lance sys­tem that could enable ubiq­ui­tous pri­va­cy and civ­il lib­er­ties vio­la­tions against Oak­land res­i­dents. The DAC was pushed through Oakland’s City Coun­cil with lit­tle review until activists put seri­ous pres­sure on the Council.

In two let­ters, EFF point­ed out that the Coun­cil didn’t appear to have a clear under­stand­ing of how the sys­tem would work and cer­tain­ly hadn’t pro­vid­ed that infor­ma­tion to the com­mu­ni­ty. After a long bat­tle, the DAC was reduced in scale—but not until after the cash-strapped city of Oak­land was forced to spend mon­ey remov­ing com­po­nents of the sys­tem due to the com­mu­ni­ty backlash.

The DAC fight is among the valu­able case stud­ies ACLU includes in the guide. These case stud­ies pro­vide inspi­ra­tion and expe­ri­ence for any­one who wants to use the resources includ­ed. We hope that activists will use this guide as a way to ensure that, when it comes to local use of sur­veil­lance equip­ment, every­one knows: the com­mu­ni­ty is watch­ing the watchers.