Privacy SOS

Cambridge is ready for a comprehensive surveillance oversight ordinance

Last night, Cambridge residents and city leadership met to discuss next steps for a surveillance oversight ordinance. The vibe in the room was optimistic. It was a rare moment of political harmony in a country beset by division. The Police Commissioner, the City Manager, the chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, and the ACLU were all in agreement: Cambridge needs a strong surveillance oversight ordinance, as soon as possible.

Public Safety chair Councilor Craig Kelley opened the meeting by framing the issue as fundamentally about good governance. The new Police Commissioner in Cambridge, Dr. Branville Bard, who wrote his PhD dissertation on racial profiling, voiced support for a surveillance oversight ordinance and said civil liberties and public safety are not opposing interests. Bard said he would never want to acquire new surveillance tools without consulting the public first. City Manager Louis DePasquale said passing an ordinance requiring public debate and democratic oversight over surveillance is incredibly important for Cambridge, and that “now is the time to get this done.” Deputy City Manager Lisa Peterson described some components the City would like to see in the ordinance, including city council approval of new technologies, public debate, and documentation of the purpose of the technology and its authorized uses. 

Segun Idowu of the Boston Police Camera Action Team (BPCAT) spoke about how important it is for Cambridge to lead, so Boston can follow. The Berkman-Klein Center’s Ben Green gave an overview of the types of technologies the ordinance should cover, noting that it should govern software and hardware acquisitions. Digital Fourth’s Alex Marthews thanked the group for coming together to move the process forward. Then members of the public had an opportunity for public comment. 

Not one person present spoke against the idea of passing a surveillance oversight ordinance. Now comes the difficult part: agreeing to language.

The meeting ended on a high note, with concrete next steps. Councilor Kelley proposed holding another public meeting at the end of November, at which the assembled parties will compile a list of agreed upon requirements for the legislation. The City Solicitor’s office will then draft the ordinance based on those priorities. That language will get kicked back to the Council, at which point the legislative process will begin in earnest.

The meeting last night showed how effective city government can be when officials, members of the public, and groups like the ACLU come together to work collaboratively. We are confident the process in Cambridge will produce the best possible surveillance oversight ordinance. If you live in Cambridge and you’d like to get involved, please contact me.

© 2017 ACLU of Massachusetts.