Today, geographically and politically diverse cities across the U.S. have come together to #TakeCTRL and fight overreaching surveillance at the local level.

As part of the Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) initiative, today local government officials in 11 cities announced plans to launch legislative efforts to pass ordinances that will take the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into a broader national surveillance state. This proposed legislation requires law enforcement agencies to get the approval from their local governing body before obtaining equipment such as stingray devices, automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) and other surveillance technology.

The cities in this first wave announcing legislative efforts include New York, N.Y.; Washington D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; Miami Beach and Pensacola, Fla; Hattiesburg, Miss.; Muskegon, Mich.; Madison and Milwaukee, Wisc.; Seattle, Wash.; and Palo Alto, Calif. More cities will join the initiative in the weeks ahead.

The process outlined by the proposed ordinance requires full public disclosure and an opportunity for the community to weigh in. This would create an environment of transparency and accountability, and would naturally limit the types of equipment police departments can acquire. It also includes provisions requiring approval for the continued use of existing technology.

A wide range of organizations spanning the political spectrum have come together to support this effort, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Bill of Rights Defense Committee/Defending Dissent Foundation, Campaign Zero, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Fight for the Future, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Restore the Fourth, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and the Tenth Amendment Center.

The increasing, secret use of surveillance technologies by local police, especially against minority communities and politically unpopular groups, creates oppressive, stigmatizing environments in which law enforcement treats every individual like a perspective criminal.

“Rather than allowing the police to unilaterally decide if and how surveillance technologies may be acquired and used, we believe local communities and their elected officials should be empowered to make those determinations,” a spokesperson for CCOPS said.

As we reported earlier this month, local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, many law enforcement agencies can obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight. The federal government often provides grants and other funding sources for this spy-gear, meaning local governments can keep their purchase “off the books.” Members of the community, and even elected officials, often don’t know their police departments possess technology capable of sweeping up electronic data, phone calls and location information.

In some cases, the feds even require law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements, wrapping surveillance programs in a shroud of secrecy. We know for a fact the FBI required the Baltimore Police Department to sign such an agreement when it obtained stingray technology. This policy of nondisclosure even extends to the courtroom, with the feds actually instructing prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions on the stand during a trial, citing a federal nondisclosure agreement.

Defense attorney Joshua Insley asked Detective Cabreja about the agreement.

“Does this document instruct you to withhold evidence from the state’s attorney and Circuit Court, even upon court order to produce?” he asked.

“Yes,” Cabreja said.

As put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”

Impact on Federal Programs

Information collected by local law enforcement undoubtedly ends up in federal databases. The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, local data collection using ALPRs, stingrays and other technologies create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans, and obtain and store information on millions of Americans, including phone calls, emails, web browsing history and text messages, all with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.

The federal government encourages and funds surveillance technology including ALPRs, drones and stingrays at the state and local level across the U.S.. In return, it undoubtedly gains access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By requiring approval and placing the acquisition of spy gear in the public spotlight, local governments can take the first step toward limiting the surveillance state at both the local and national level.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

The #TakeCTRL campaign represents a concerted and coordinated effort to stop warrantless surveillance and to prevent America from sliding deeper to a Big Brother-like surveillance state.

Mike Maharrey

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