By Shahid Buttar / Electronic Frontier Foundation
Dear Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher,
We live in dangerous times. The rights of people of color, immigrants, workers, women, and asylum seekers are threatened every day. As history has repeatedly shown, one of the most powerful tools of oppression is surveillance. California has the opportunity to ensure public control and oversight of the spying technologies that law enforcement is most likely to abuse. Right now, the power is in your hands to ensure it moves forward.
With each year, civil rights advocates have watched technology advance amidst a climate of growing secrecy, allowing authorities to collect more and more personal data from more and more people and store it indefinitely, without parameters for how it can be used, with whom it can be shared, or what to do if it is misused or abused. We ask you, as chair of the California Assembly Appropriations Committee, to pass S.B. 1186 out of the committee without further amendments.
We have reached the point where unchecked surveillance may pose a public safety risk as great as the ones the technology is meant to address.
Over the past decade, high tech government surveillance has expanded well beyond national intelligence agencies based in the Beltway. Tools like aerial surveillance drones, automatic license plate readers, cell-site simulators, and face recognition algorithms—many originally developed for military application in foreign battlegrounds—are finding their way onto the streets of cities across our state. In San Diego and other border regions, the acceleration is acute as the Trump administration seeks to ramp up deportations, build “the Wall,” and recruit local law enforcement to assist in its “zero tolerance” schemes. As has been documented time and time again, surveillance disproportionately impacts communities of color, immigrants, and religious minorities.
S.B. 1186 is a straightforward accountability measure: it requires law enforcement agencies to go through a public process before they may obtain surveillance technology. City Councils and county boards would have the authority to either approve the acquisition, or reject it if they find that it isn’t justified, or that the agency’s policy does not sufficiently respect civil liberties and civil rights.
There is a lot for progressives and conservatives to like about S.B. 1186. Fiscal hawks will appreciate that it gives elected legislative bodies a chance to prevent wasteful spending. At the same time, it would also allow local officials to oversee—or even block—law enforcement data-sharing with federal deportation forces. It would also give public employees a chance to weigh in on the surveillance policies that may be used to monitor them in the workplace.
Here’s how former Lemon Grove Mayor and SANDAG Public Safety Committee Chair Mary Sessom described her experience overseeing surveillance:
I wanted to know: what technologies did we have, how were these technologies used, how were they funded, who controlled it, and who retained the data and for how long? But, even finding answers to these basic questions proved frustrating. If I asked for a record, law enforcement would provide it — but I had to know that it already existed. If I didn’t know a record existed, nobody volunteered to tell me it was available.
Under S.B. 1186, city councils and county boards across the state would have answers to those questions before law enforcement could deploy a new surveillance technology.
The problem is not hypothetical. The San Diego region, in particular, has suffered the consequences of surveillance technology being deployed without adequate scrutiny or oversight.
The San Diego District Attorney’s office distributed computer surveillance software to families that it later had to publicly warn was unsafe. In addition, the San Diego Police Department rolled out a patrol-car camera system that Voice of San Diego found to be so dysfunctional as to be hilarious. More recently, Voice of San Diego journalist Andrew Keatts reported that SDPD was sharing location data collected with automated license plate reader with hundreds of agencies around the country (including DHS) and likely violating a state law by failing to adequately document searches of its data. Across the state, law enforcement personnel misused sensitive databases more than 140 times last year alone—including 11 times in your home county. While the nature of those abuses has not been revealed, such breaches are often related to domestic abuse.
S.B. 1186 would not hamper criminal investigations or make the work of peace officers more difficult. Accountable policing is good policing. It is important to have clear rules and restrictions for surveillance technology, just as there must be clear policies for use of force or strip searches. In addition, when the public is involved in surveillance decision, it builds community trust with public safety officers.
In essence, the bill would shine sunlight on important decisions that are currently being made behind closed doors. It will help enable a long overdue public discussion about how communities can best stay safe, and how police can operate within constitutional limits that respect the privacy of law-abiding Americans.
This conversation has begun on the local level. Indeed, the very first reform of this kind in the nation was in Santa Clara County, which adopted a similar measure in 2016. The Cities of Oakland, Davis, and Berkeley have followed suit, in addition to jurisdictions from Seattle, Washington to Somerville, Massachusetts.
California would be the first state to pass such a measure. As we have on so many other pressing issues, California should lead the way on ensuring community control over surveillance technology by local law enforcement—especially given the danger that the sensitive information collected by these powerful technologies will be shared with the current administration in Washington.
You have long been a champion of human rights. We urge to join us in this fight by voting “Aye” on S.B. 1186 and ensuring its passage without further amendments.
Director of Grassroots Advocacy
Electronic Frontier Foundation