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We Should Know When Police Are Using Mass Surveillance

The San Diego police department is using facial recognition devices and DNA gathering technology without cause on unsuspecting citizens. SDPD told the New York Times in 2015 that officers using the technology weren’t required to file any paperwork when they used it, that the products were in use as a “test product for the region,” and that they didn’t know how many devices with these capabilities were in the field.

Use of these technologies has only grown and yet no one has asked the public for their consent.

Earlier this year, Voice of San Diego reported that San Diego police had deployed automated license plate readers throughout our region, which track identifying information about hundreds of thousands of car trips per year. When asked who had access to this massive database of San Diegans’ movements, the department incorrectly claimed that database was not under SDPD’s control and they couldn’t control who it was shared with. In fact, SDPD had, perhaps unwittingly, shared the data with at least 800 other law enforcement departments across the country, including federal law enforcement.

Because surveillance capabilities defy the borders of cities and counties, statewide action is needed.

Unannounced arrivals of unsecured surveillance systems, placed in the hands of untrained police, cannot be the way of the future. Allowing mass surveillance technology to show up suddenly and uncontrolled is not the right approach for building lasting trust between police and people in neighborhoods.

Facial recognition technology in particular is developing at an alarming pace. The president of Microsoft recently warned that facial recognition technology needs the urgent attention of Congress. Already, products like Amazon’s “Rekognition” are being marketed to police departments, providing systems that identify and track “people of interest” in public places and monitor all faces at crowded events. Pacific Standard reports police agencies in California are among those expressing early interest in the system.

A 2017 visit by the ACLU to a law enforcement conference found vendors offering products that combine mass facial recognition, audio surveillance and license plate reading systems to provide police with access to live correlation and tracking of every person observed. The technologies of science fiction have materialized without any framework for rules or scrutiny.

We all may have different opinions when it comes to ubiquitous surveillance technology. But we should all share interest in answering some of these basic questions:

  • How will these technologies be configured, and under what circumstances will they be used?

Fortunately, there’s a bill in the California legislature that would require an open and transparent collaboration between police and neighborhoods, where these questions could be asked. SB 1186, as originally written, would require local law enforcement agencies to seek the approval of their local governing legislative bodies, such as city councils, on how the agency intends to use their surveillance technology. If the agency’s plan isn’t approved, the agency would have to cease using that technology.

If left unamended, SB 1186 would succeed at striking a balance between supporting law enforcement’s need to use modern technology to combat crime and still being accountable to residents and the communities they are policing.

It’s now before Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher, who chairs the Appropriations Committee in the California State Assembly. I urge her and San Diego’s other state legislators to say “yes” to transparent community and police collaboration.

Seth Hall is a technologist in San Diego working on TechLEAD. A version of this piece also appeared on Voice Of San Diego.