A Promising California Bill Could Help Communities Stop Secret And Discriminatory Police Surveillance
California is on the verge of passing Senate Bill 21 (SB 21), a strong bill that, in its current form, would help empower communities and their local elected officials to stop secret and discriminatory use of police surveillance technologies. Making sure state lawmakers enact robust surveillance reform laws is all the more important right now as the Trump administration equips its deportation force with surveillance capabilities, aggressively pursues political activists, and escalates pressure on sanctuary cities. Now is the time to make sure a strong SB 21 — with no further amendments — gets across the finish line.
For years, the secret use of surveillance technology has been consistently expanding with virtually no restraints. Law enforcement agencies nationwide, using federal funds, have amassed sophisticated technologies, including Stingray cell phone trackers, automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), drones, and algorithm-based policing software.
These surveillance technologies are frequently used to target immigrants and communities of color. South Asian, Muslim and Sikh protesters were spied on in San Jose. Baltimore police used facial recognition technology to identify people protesting the police killing of Freddie Gray. And social media surveillance technology in Fresno enabled police to monitor hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter as “threats to public safety.” Residents of Compton, California, have been monitored in their own backyards with high-powered, fly-over cameras and the New York Police Department used license plate readers to track people as they worshiped at mosques. Now immigrant communities living along the United States and Mexico border are facing an invasive new program to scan their eyeballs.
Californians want reform, with more than two-thirds supporting both local and state-level rules to rein in police surveillance. If passed in its current form, SB 21 will become the first state law to require transparency and community control over police decisions about surveillance technology. The bill requires a public debate over proposals to acquire new surveillance technologies. It places local communities and elected officials at the center of every decision to approve or reject their locality’s use of surveillance technologies. And should local elected leaders approve the use of a surveillance technology, SB 21 requires the adoption of a council-approved policy governing its use and regular evaluations of its impact on civil rights and civil liberties.
The need for surveillance reform is not just a local issue. Sensitive surveillance information about who we are, where we go, and what we do that is collected by local law enforcement often flows, without adequate controls, to the federal government through fusion centers, which collect and share surveillance data from all levels of government, as well as other domestic spying infrastructure. This is not a hypothetical threat. Just ask Oakland, California, which despite being a sanctuary city, discovered that U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was using a fusion center to get its hands on Oakland’s license plate reader data. SB 21’s provisions, which empower communities to consider if and how any surveillance information is shared with the federal government, are particularly important in the current political climate.
SB 21 builds on the nationwide Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) movement, a reform effort spearheaded by 17 organizations, including the ACLU, that is designed to put local residents and elected officials in charge of decisions about surveillance technology. Last summer, Santa Clara County, California passed a groundbreaking ordinance ensuring consistent transparency, accountability, and oversight procedures for all surveillance decisions in the county. Nashville adopted a CCOPS law earlier this summer, and Seattle just voted to strengthen its first-in-the-nation surveillance ordinance.
California’s SB 21 has emerged at a key moment — right now at least 18 U.S. cities are actively considering their own surveillance bills. Oakland is poised to enact a robust ordinance in an effort led by the city’s new Privacy Advisory Commission. In New York City, the ACLU of New York and various community groups are fighting to end the NYPD’s secret use of surveillance technology and prevent any inappropriate data sharing with the Trump administration. Residents in St. Louis are working to pass a CCOPS law as a part of broader efforts to address discriminatory policing in the region.
We need strong local and state protections to push secret surveillance into the light, put communities back in control, and prevent abusive practices that all too often target immigrants, people of color, religious groups, and activists.
We hope you’ll urge California lawmakers to pass a strong SB 21 – with no further amendments – and in so doing set an example for other cities and states to follow.
To learn more about the CCOPS effort and how to start or join an effort in your community, please visit www.CommunityCTRL.com.
Nicole A. Ozer is the Technology & Civil Liberties Policy Director with the ACLU of California. Chad Marlow is Advocacy and Policy Counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union.