When it comes to surveillance, there is a fine line between privacy and public safety. Because of this, surveillance laws are often scrutinized by both sides. A new bill was introduced at the end of 2016 which requires any local law enforcement agency in California that uses surveillance technology to submit a plan to local officials on how it uses equipment and information collected. This would need to include surveillance plans for any facial recognition software, drones, and even social media monitoring, and would be presented at an open hearing.
While this disclosure from law enforcement may put some worries at ease, others may want more. Privacy advocates believe that this is still not enough to cover spying equipment and technology that is continuing to evolve and expand. On the other side, law enforcement officials argue that creating plans and policies for each device may be unfeasible and interfere with investigations.
But state Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) says that it was introduced “to create transparency and a check and balance.” Without regulations on these devices and technology, they can easily be abused and infringe on our privacy rights.
With fairly comprehensive digital privacy laws, California has been actively working toward disclosure when it comes to law enforcement surveillance. State laws require a probable cause warrant for access to digital content and devices (ex. cell phones) and law enforcement must catalog information and make it publicly available.
The new bill gives agencies until July 1, 2018 to draft policies detailing all the types of surveillance technology used and the authorized reasons for using them, along with the types of data collected, who can access them, and a description of their training. It also prohibits an agency from acquiring new technology unless approved by local officials at a regularly scheduled public meeting.
Last year, two surveillance laws went into effect, one of which requires to draft and publicly post privacy and usage policies for operating automated license-plate recognition software. The other requires the same for the use of cell-site simulators (“Stingrays” or “Dirtboxes”). These are powerful tracking devices that function as fake cellphone towers to collect information. However, their ability to collect information from innocent people not under investigation has sparked outrage and court battles.
Despite current surveillance laws, privacy advocates believe that not all agencies are complying and that not enough is being done to ensure that they do. To evade the disclosure requirements, agencies could borrow technology from other federal agencies, which is not subject to state law.
In an effort to check compliance, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other nonprofits and watchdog groups searched through numerous California government websites to make sure surveillance policies were posted. While many were easily located, policies for at least 90 agencies (which, based on public records, were believed to use surveillance technology) could not be found. Since this task in April 2016, more agencies have posted their policies online.
While the new bill is meant to be inclusive and comprehensive, concerns remain. Some worry that criminals may figure out how they are being tracked, others bring up issues of time sensitivity when it comes to buying or borrowing new technology, and privacy advocates are still skeptical about the cost, risks, and enforcement.
There are obviously mixed feelings about this new bill, and other surveillance laws. What are your views? Share your thoughts and opinions with us on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.
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