Model Ordinance and Toolkit

Model Ordinance and Toolkit

To ensure public oversight over abuses and unnecessary militarization of police, local government departments should be required to obtain approval from their legislative body before acquiring new surveillance equipment.

Openness and participation are antidotes to surveillance and control.

Howard Rheingold

Spurred partly by federal government grants, many local agencies are interested in acquiring and employing new surveillance equipment. While technological advances provide many new capabilities to government, they also have the ability to significantly infringe on privacy and freedom of association rights. Increasingly, this equipment is military or intelligence technology that was not developed with local communities in mind. Too often, the impact of surveillance equipment on a community is not fully evaluated before it is put into use.

Surveillance equipment can be expensive, and elected officials need to weigh its pros and cons carefully.

A formal review and approval process prior to the acquisition and use of new surveillance equipment is essential.  This process can help to determine whether the technology is indeed necessary and whether its use will promote public safety without unduly compromising privacy or causing other problems. 

Government departments should be required to obtain approval from their local legislative body before acquiring new surveillance equipment.  To that end, local governments should pass ordinances that require departments to specify the equipment they wish to acquire and justify its need, along with protocols governing how the equipment will be used, how data will be collected, retained and accessed, and how privacy will be protected.

The ACLU of Washington has prepared a toolkit that provides lawmakers with the tools they’ll need when considering whether to acquire and use surveillance equipment. The toolkit flags issues that should be explored and presents an easy process to evaluate the ramifications of new technologies.

Examples of Use

  • Location:: 
    Seattle, WA
    Without Oversight Process, Potentially Useful Mesh Network Goes Unused

    In fall 2013, Seattle Police Department (SPD) documents leaked to local media revealed that the department had quietly built an expansive wireless mesh network over the previous two years. Helped by a $2.7 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the SPD undertook the project with little or no input or oversight from outside technology experts, privacy advocates, lawmakers, or the public. By the time news stories appeared,  police had already activated the network in many parts of the city. Additionally, they had integrated it with networks of surveillance cameras in the downtown business core, the port, and several parks. The department had not adopted an official policy governing the use of the network, nor had it put in place any safeguards to protect the privacy of people walking down the street. Facing a public backlash,the SPD temporarily deactivated the system. Had the SPD gone to the local city council with the proper considerations, these devices might have been implemented for valuable uses supported by the public and with proper protections in place.