American Cities Combat the Surveillance State: Municipal Ordinances Lay Out Strict Rules Governing the Use of Surveillance Gear

Written by: Zach Evans

Research & Writing Editor, American Journal of Trial Advocacy

Oakland, California is the latest of American cities to work towards passing a new ordinance constricting the use of surveillance technology.[1] Earlier this month, the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission passed its “Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance,” leaving the decision to the City Council.[2] Cities have generally accepted funding at the federal, state, and regional levels in order to supply local law enforcement with surveillance devices.[3] However, municipal lawmakers generally have not asked how the surveillance equipment will actually be used, nor have they later evaluated the efficacy of the equipment with regard to crime reduction.[4] The Oakland ordinance seeks to evaluate surveillance technology by requiring a detailed “Surveillance Impact Report.”[5] Impact reports would include a description of the technology to be used as well as disclosures of the locations and specific purposes of its use.[6] Additionally, impact reports would disclose the sources of data collected and the steps taken to secure this data upon collection.[7] The impact report would also include a summary of civil rights complaints against a given surveillance technology in order to determine its overall privacy impact.[8]

Santa Clara, California added to this growing municipal trend in 2016 upon its requirement that local law enforcement submit an “Annual Surveillance Report.”[9] These reports provide descriptions of how surveillance technology was used, specifically reporting what kinds of information were gathered regarding individuals who were not suspected of criminal activity.[10] Ideally, surveillance technologies will gather targeted information without indiscriminately collecting excessive amounts of data. Similar to the proposed Oakland reports, disclosures also include an evaluation of the effectiveness of the technology and summary of community concerns with the technology.[11] The ordinance purports to achieve the balancing act between protecting the privacy interests of the public while ensuring the public’s safety.[12]

Perhaps sensing issues before the rest of the country, the City Council of Seattle, Washington unanimously passed a surveillance ordinance in 2013, requiring local law enforcement to acquire City Council approval in order to obtain certain surveillance technologies.[13] In protecting privacy interests, the Seattle ordinance focuses more on the front-end acquisition of equipment rather than the back-end evaluation of its effectiveness.[14] Local agencies provide information about how, when, where, and why desired equipment will be used.[15] Potential issues concerning interference with the privacy and anonymity of individuals are also disclosed.[16]

In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, City Council member Deborah Delgado is drafting a new proposal for a similar municipal surveillance ordinance.[17] The ordinance highlights the need for public input concerning the impact of surveillance technologies on civil liberties and civil rights.[18] Continuing with the growing trend, the proposed ordinance would require a report from local agencies detailing the uses and purposes of desired surveillance devices.[19]

Few cities have addressed the effects of surveillance technologies in such a direct manner. As cities continue to balance the public’s privacy interests against the desire to have safer, more secure communities, more cities may propose and enact similar surveillance ordinances. Reports including detailed evaluations that show which surveillance gear is particularly effective in reducing crime while limiting its intrusive effects would help to determine preferred methods of surveillance. Likewise, such reports will hopefully weed out ineffective and overly intrusive surveillance techniques.


[1] Cyrus Farivar, Oakland may become rare American city with strict rules for spy gear use, Ars Technica, (Jan. 6, 2017, 3:30pm) http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2017/01/oakland-may-become-the-rare-american-city-with-strict-rules-for-spy-gear-use/.

[2] Id; Surveillance and Community Service Ordinance, Oakland City Council, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3253520-oak061975.html.

[3] Farivar, supra note 1.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Surveillance and Community Service Ordinance, Oakland City Council, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3253520-oak061975.html.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Cyrus Farivar, Silicon Valley county passes new law requiring approval before cops buy spy kit, Ars Technica, (June 8, 2016, 4:00 am) http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2016/06/silicon-valley-county-passes-new-law-requiring-approval-before-cops-buy-spy-kit/; Santa Clara, Cal., Ordinance NS-300.897, (May 24, 2016) https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2854213-Attachment-149330.html#document/p5/a300684.

[10] Santa Clara, Cal., Ordinance NS-300.897, (May 24, 2016) https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2854213-Attachment-149330.html#document/p5/a300684.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Seattle, Wash., Ordinance 124142, (March 18, 2013).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Haskel Burns, Ordinance looks at police surveillance equipment, Hattiesburg American, (Oct. 28, 2016, 5:54pm), http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com/story/news/local/hattiesburg/2016/10/28/ordinance-looks-police-surveillance-equipment/92899430/.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

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