Surveillance Debate | Capitol Hearing Exposes Rift Between Law Enforcement Lobbies and Civil Liberty Defenders

April 12, 2018

Sacramento News & Review
Scott Thomas Anderson

It only took minutes for George Orwell’s1984 to be invoked during an April 3 hearing at the state Capitol, where law enforcement and civil liberty advocates reached very different conclusions about the risk-reward ratio for new—and, in some cases, predictive—technologies.

The debate happened before the California Senate Public Safety Committee. Sen. Jerry Hill, representing the Silicon Valley, was exhibiting concern about some of the software his own district produces. His Senate Bill 1186 would make law enforcement agencies follow the same transparency requirements that currently apply to license-plate readers and cellphone trackers when those agencies use video surveillance and facial recognition software, some of which are now operating on social media platforms.

Specifically, the proposed law would require police and sheriffs’ departments to have an official policy, approved by their respective local government, about the use of their surveillance technologies, while also delivering bi-annual reports on exactly how they’ve used the tech.

“If police agencies want to search your car, your phone or your house, they have to get a warrant; but many agencies have technologies that can track where you go, who you talk to and what you say in public, without any safeguards,” Hill told the committee. “Law enforcement will argue that creating transparency provides a surveillance road-map to criminals. This is not the case. The mere knowledge of a police tactic does not render it useless.”