OP-ED: Oakland Poised to Lead in Protecting Privacy Rights

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By Brian Hofer and JP Massar

Here in Oakland we have no citywide privacy policy, no privacy or data-retention policies for use of surveillance equipment, and no policy concerning the use of the Oakland Police Department’s cellphone tower-mimicking Stingray devices.

These are so controversial that police across the nation actively conceal their use from courts and defense attorneys, going so far as to dismiss charges at trial rather than reveal the technology (“Judge threatens detective with contempt…,” Baltimore Sun, Nov. 17, 2014). And yet, neither the purchase of Stingrays nor their use has ever been knowingly approved by the City Council.

On May 12, the Oakland City Council’s Public Safety Committee is poised to vote on recommendations created by the Ad Hoc Privacy Committee that they established a year ago.

Councilmembers will consider a privacy and data retention policy for the scaled back Port Domain Awareness Center (DAC), and is also being asked to establish a new, permanent committee to advise the council on broad privacy and data-related matters. This will in turn create a citywide privacy policy.

A proposal to adopt a first-of-its-kind surveillance equipment ordinance has also been made.

If adopted, these recommendations will ensure that there is robust public debate on privacy issues before council approval of future surveillance projects, and that the effectiveness of surveillance tools be analyzed, reported publicly and undergo independent audits.

Once passed by the full council, these will significantly protect the right to privacy for residents in this age of big data and Mass Surveillance.

Taken as a whole, the implementation of the committee’s recommendations would make Oakland the national leader in protecting privacy rights. Other cities are pursuing a similar path.

Seattle has created a permanent privacy committee and adopted a surveillance equipment ordinance. Menlo Park recently adopted an ordinance that regulates the use of automated license plate readers and requires quarterly performance reports.

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos and Santa Clara Supervisor Joe Simitian are working with the ACLU to introduce in their jurisdictions the same type of surveillance equipment ordinance to be introduced here.

The Los Angeles Times endorsed the ACLU’s ordinance, stating: “The ACLU’s approach to vetting new technologies is so pragmatic that cities, counties and law enforcement agencies throughout California would be foolish not to embrace it.”

With the adoption of these recommendations as written, the Oakland City Council can show it is earnest about protecting its citizens’ privacy rights. By supporting their full implementation, city staff and law enforcement can demonstrate that they intend to earn the community’s trust by operating within the bounds of the Constitution, city policy and civilian oversight. As the Los Angeles Times editorialized, “trust us is not enough.”

Without active citizens coming together to “watch the watchers,” history shows that legislation alone is insufficient.

The Oakland Privacy Working Group is one such group. Formed two years ago to stand up for privacy in Oakland, it has attempted to keep city officials honest – fighting against the DAC and initiating a number of Public Records Requests to shed light on surveillance contracts, influence of surveillance contractors, and use of surveillance equipment.

Find them at oaklandprivacy.wordpress.com and on Twitter: @oaklandprivacy.

Brian Hofer is chair of the Ad Hoc Privacy Committee. JP Massar is a member of the Oakland Privacy Working Group.

By Brian Hofer and JP Massar

Here in Oakland we have no citywide privacy policy, no privacy or data-retention policies for use of surveillance equipment, and no policy concerning the use of the Oakland Police Department’s cellphone tower-mimicking Stingray devices.

These are so controversial that police across the nation actively conceal their use from courts and defense attorneys, going so far as to dismiss charges at trial rather than reveal the technology (“Judge threatens detective with contempt…,” Baltimore Sun, Nov. 17, 2014). And yet, neither the purchase of Stingrays nor their use has ever been knowingly approved by the City Council.

On May 12, the Oakland City Council’s Public Safety Committee is poised to vote on recommendations created by the Ad Hoc Privacy Committee that they established a year ago.

Councilmembers will consider a privacy and data retention policy for the scaled back Port Domain Awareness Center (DAC), and is also being asked to establish a new, permanent committee to advise the council on broad privacy and data-related matters. This will in turn create a citywide privacy policy.

A proposal to adopt a first-of-its-kind surveillance equipment ordinance has also been made.

If adopted, these recommendations will ensure that there is robust public debate on privacy issues before council approval of future surveillance projects, and that the effectiveness of surveillance tools be analyzed, reported publicly and undergo independent audits.

Once passed by the full council, these will significantly protect the right to privacy for residents in this age of big data and Mass Surveillance.

Taken as a whole, the implementation of the committee’s recommendations would make Oakland the national leader in protecting privacy rights. Other cities are pursuing a similar path.

Seattle has created a permanent privacy committee and adopted a surveillance equipment ordinance. Menlo Park recently adopted an ordinance that regulates the use of automated license plate readers and requires quarterly performance reports.

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos and Santa Clara Supervisor Joe Simitian are working with the ACLU to introduce in their jurisdictions the same type of surveillance equipment ordinance to be introduced here.

The Los Angeles Times endorsed the ACLU’s ordinance, stating: “The ACLU’s approach to vetting new technologies is so pragmatic that cities, counties and law enforcement agencies throughout California would be foolish not to embrace it.”

With the adoption of these recommendations as written, the Oakland City Council can show it is earnest about protecting its citizens’ privacy rights. By supporting their full implementation, city staff and law enforcement can demonstrate that they intend to earn the community’s trust by operating within the bounds of the Constitution, city policy and civilian oversight. As the Los Angeles Times editorialized, “trust us is not enough.”

Without active citizens coming together to “watch the watchers,” history shows that legislation alone is insufficient.

The Oakland Privacy Working Group is one such group. Formed two years ago to stand up for privacy in Oakland, it has attempted to keep city officials honest – fighting against the DAC and initiating a number of Public Records Requests to shed light on surveillance contracts, influence of surveillance contractors, and use of surveillance equipment.

Find them at oaklandprivacy.wordpress.com and on Twitter: @oaklandprivacy.

Brian Hofer is chair of the Ad Hoc Privacy Committee. JP Massar is a member of the Oakland Privacy Working Group.

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