Surveillance Technology: A Useful Tool or a Threat to Our Security

Technology Policy Brief #65 | By: Stephan Lherissen | October 26, 2021

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Policy Summary

Cities around the nation are adopting legislation that puts limits on the use of surveillance technology by their respective police forces. These cities are at the forefront of policy that could be adopted nationally by the federal government. These laws are being considered by some and established by others in response to growing criticism that these technologies do not respect the rights and privacy of citizens.

The cities of New York City, San Francisco, and Cambridge Massachusetts and many others have passed legislation giving their cities authority over police surveillance programs. They mean to create transparency around police usage of these technologies.The technologies can include facial recognition technology, license plate reader data, “Stingray” cell phone locaters and backscatter “X-Ray vans.”

The focus of some of these laws and ordinances has been to create guards against facial recognition technology if not outright ban it. It has been proven that the technology is inaccurate and biased, especially when used against communities of color.

Policy Analysis

Establishment of these laws throughout the country was spurred in part by the fear that these technologies go against the rights of citizens and stampede over civil rights protections. Both federal and state protections were considered. The stories about the laws enacted in different cities are similar. In every city lawmakers are interested in protecting their populace. To do that they need effective legislation that gives them the power to demand transparency and accountability from the police.

The function of facial recognition technology is to identify a suspect when their face is matched up with a face in a database. Sometimes those databases can be unknown to the public. License plate readers are devices that can scan the license plates of a car that passes by. Stingray cell phone locators are cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell towers and send out signals to trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information. X-Ray vans use x-ray radiation to look through the walls of buildings or the side of trucks.

On July 15, 2020 the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act was signed into law in New York City. The law requires the New York City Police Department to reveal to the public the scope of its surveillance activities and the equipment that is used for such activities. The bill explains the process by which the department will share their surveillance efforts to the public.

In 2019, before New York City passed its surveillance legislation, San Francisco enacted an ordinance that banned the use of facial recognition technology in the city. In addition to the ban on facial recognition technology the ordinance called for transparency when it came to the actions and efforts of police departments in their use of surveillance tech.

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In 2018 Cambridge, Massachusetts went further than the other cities with the terms of its ordinance. In the Cambridge ordinance the community was put in charge of police surveillance actions. The ordinance requires police to seek City Counsel permission before buying, acquiring, or using new surveillance technologies In Cambridge the city was trying to find a balance between the privacy of its citizens and the need to keep citizens safe.

The action of creating laws to limit the use of surveillance technology has also been taken up by the federal government. The Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security are open about their policies when it comes to the use of certain surveillance technology. Despite this the federal government seeks further openness when it comes to public information.

The Senate is also targeting the use of a particular facial recognition tool called Clearview AI as well as prohibiting the purchase of location data and personal data without a warrant by the U.S. government. A new Congressional bill called The First Amendment is not for sale would also outlaw the use of technology generated data that was obtained duplicitously.

Because of abuses of power by law enforcement, people around the country are asserting their own powers as citizens that have civil and personal rights when it comes to how their data is used and how they are tracked by law enforcement. Police departments in certain cities are now required to reveal their actions and techniques when it comes to surveillance of their fellow citizens.

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