Privacy SOS

Lawrence is set to expand its surveillance network. Here are the details.

In September, Lawrence became the first city in Massachusetts to pass an ordinance requiring community control of police surveillance. The ordinance requires, among other things, that city agencies like the police get permission from the City Council before deploying new surveillance technologies. It also requires that agencies get Council approval for the privacy policies that will govern any approved technologies.

Last Monday, the Lawrence Police Department held a community meeting at the Lawrence Public Library to discuss their plan to install about 70 surveillance cameras all over the city (see map above). Along with representatives from the contractor, Lan-tel communications, and a representative from the Somerville Police Department, Lawrence Chief of Police Roy P. Vasque made the case for why the city needs this kind of surveillance system. The officials discussed the Lawrence PD’s draft surveillance camera policy, and members of the public voiced their own views.                                                  

Chief Vasque told the approximately 30 people assembled at City Hall that his department’s surveillance cameras will be used as an “investigative tool,” and will have a “deterrence function” that will help lower the crime rate in the city. The Chief didn’t present any evidence to support the claim that cameras lower crime rates, however, and the effectiveness of this type of surveillance system for lowering violent crime rates is far from proven, and a subject of debate.

According to the presentation, the new surveillance system in Lawrence is inspired by the Somerville Police Department’s system. Following Somerville, one of the Lawrence PD’s goals, the Chief said, is to be “transparent.” By transparency, he meant basically three things. First, the police will disclose the locations of the cameras. Second, they will allow people to visit the headquarters where the cameras are monitored. Finally, they will issue annual reports on camera use. Those are all good and laudable steps towards transparency, and the ACLU encourages Lawrence to take them.

Representatives of the contractor and Chief Vasque also provided the following information about the camera system:

  • The cameras will be publicly visible, not covert, and they will be painted blue.
  • Cameras will not record audio, only images.
  • The retention period for surveillance video will be 30 days unless the video is needed for a civil or criminal proceeding.
  • Cameras will not look inside homes, stores, schools, or other places where people have an expectation of privacy.
  • Video surveillance footage will be directly transmitted to the police headquarters and will not be shared with third parties. Specifically, Chief Vasque said that there will be no sharing of information with other law enforcement or non-law enforcement agencies, whether federal, state, or local.
  • The transmission will be 128 bit encrypted and will be secure.
  • The video content analysis will not involve face recognition but will include other kinds of automated analysis like automated tracking of the direction of where people are heading and thermal detection.
  • Face recognition will not be used and cannot be mounted in the system.
  • Officer access to the system and manipulation of cameras using the pan, tilt, or zoom functions will be automatically recorded in a log, to protect against abuse and enable accountability.

About 30 community members participated in the meeting, asking questions to ensure the police don’t use the surveillance cameras to violate people’s rights. People were not afraid to speak up against a technology that threatens the most basic and sacred civil rights and civil liberties, and they were very conscious that these systems have to be controlled so they aren’t abused or misused. 

The ACLU applauds Chief Vasque for opening up this important discussion to the public, and for his commitment to be transparent and accountable. To make sure these commitments are clear to everyone in the community, the Lawrence Police Department should promulgate a policy that reflects his public comments. A good privacy policy, informed by the concerns of residents, will go a long way towards ensuring the police department is using the system in a manner that is respectful of the civil rights and liberties of the people of Lawrence.

We have some ideas about what ought to be included in that surveillance camera policy.

  1. The policy should explicitly ban the use of biometric software like face surveillance technology.
  2. The policy should clearly state that the cameras are not be used to invade the privacy of individuals or harass or intimidate any individual or group. One way to protect privacy is for the police to purchase and use software that automatically blacks out views of the interior of people’s homes (“masking” technology). The city should adopt this type of technology to make sure police and anyone else who accesses the camera footage (including members of the public via public records requests) cannot see inside people’s homes or other private spaces.
  3. The purpose statement outlining why the city has adopted the cameras has to be clear and specific. This is essential because the purpose informs how the information is collected, stored, and managed. We are talking about video surveillance footage depicting people as they go about their daily lives. The purpose stands as a limitation to the use of this information, so the policy should not only describe what the cameras will be used for, but also indicate with more specificity what the cameras are not meant to do. That latter category should include things like immigration enforcement and the surveillance of journalists and activists.
  4. The policy should clearly describe the relationship with the third party and contractor, including any access to surveillance data third parties might have. The policy should explicitly state that the surveillance footage is the sole property of the City of Lawrence, and should forbid any third party or contractor from accessing any footage, except in cases where footage is disclosed under the public records law.
  5. The policy should specify the make, model, and type of cameras used, and contain specific provisions related to digital security mechanisms by which surveillance data will be transmitted or stored. It should specify that the Lawrence Police Department will use the best available encryption to protect these data from theft or unauthorized access. 
  6. The policy should stipulate that a log will be kept, noting each sign-in to the surveillance system, and each time a camera is manipulated, and surveillance data is accessed. This log should require that any person manipulating a camera or accessing footage (either real-time footage or historical data) document the purpose for the manipulation or access, and document the name and officer number of the person accessing the system. This log should be a public record subject to inspection by the public, the City Council, and any auditors.       
  7. One of the most critical issues the policy must address is the standard by which the police will decide whether to disclose video surveillance footage to other local law enforcement or state or federal agencies. Lawrence is a sanctuary city, and home to thousands of immigrants. The policy should therefore require that external law enforcement agencies, including ICE, present a probable cause warrant, signed by a judge, before accessing video surveillance images from the system.
  8. The policy should stipulate that video surveillance data will be retained for 30 days and deleted after 30 days, unless someone has requested a certain portion of video under the public records law, or it is the subject of a specific civil or criminal investigation.

Chief Vasque’s commitment to sharing the camera locations with the public is a good thing. In determining where to place the cameras, his department should consult with the elected leadership of the City of Lawrence, including the City Council. This consultation is important, because the city should do whatever it can to avoid the targeting of specific areas of the city, or particular types of people, groups, or associations. Cities must be careful not to place surveillance cameras in areas that could expose people to surveillance as they seek medical services or attend prayer, for example. Additionally, surveillance systems usually disproportionately impact communities of color, low-income communities, and immigrant communities, so members of the community in Lawrence should be on the lookout to ensure that doesn’t happen there.

Finally, the surveillance camera policy should include clear and strong audit and oversight provisions. Ideally, the City Council will establish a Camera Oversight Committee to provide ongoing oversight to ensure the cameras are not misused or abused. Additionally, the policy should stipulate that the camera system, including adherence to retention limits and other privacy practices documented in a strengthened policy, will be audited once per year by a non-law enforcement entity that has experience conducting such audits.

The City of Lawrence showed itself to be a model for other communities in Massachusetts when it passed the state’s first surveillance oversight ordinance in September 2018. Now city officials have the opportunity to implement a surveillance camera policy that protects civil rights and civil liberties. If Chief Vasque commits to writing everything he said at the public meeting last week, as well as our suggestions above, the people of Lawrence should feel confident that their city’s leadership is on the right track.

This blog post was written by Emiliano Falcon.

© 2019 ACLU of Massachusetts.