Privacy SOS

Support a strong Cambridge surveillance ordinance? Come out to testify today.

Tonight, the Cambridge City Council will meet at 5:30 pm at City Hall. On the agenda is a discussion of a crucial surveillance accountability and transparency ordinance. The future of privacy and good government in Cambridge hangs in the balance, making it critical that supporters of local democratic policing come out and speak their minds tonight.

Here’s some background to explain what’s going on.

In November 2016, hundreds of Cambridge residents turned out to testify in support of an ACLU-backed ordinance introduced by Mayor Denise Simmons and City Councilor Nadeem Mazen. The ordinance, which is similar to local laws passed in Seattle and Santa Clara County, would require city agencies to obtain public approval before buying new surveillance technologies, mandate a public process for privacy policy development, and require that the police report back to the city council on how they use any surveillance technologies approved by the council. The ordinance is a crucial step towards bringing the post-9/11 militarization of local police under control, and fighting excessive secrecy surrounding local spying.

In the age of Trump, it’s more important than ever to make sure Cambridge residents have a say in decisions that will implicate the rights of immigrants, people of color, and dissidents—the typical targets of government spying.

Since November, we’ve been waiting for the Cambridge City Solicitor to review the ordinance and issue a redrafted version back to the council. Twice since, the council has requested an update on this process from the City Manager, who is responsible for overseeing the City Solicitor. On Friday night, just days before today’s council meeting, the City Manager issued a report to the council, updating the elected representatives about his thinking on the ordinance.

Unfortunately, the City Manager’s report suggests he wants to gut the ordinance of its most important provision: local approval of surveillance technology acquisitions. Essentially, the City Manager argues that the ordinance is “overly broad and prescriptive,” and says his office will “revise the Proposed Ordinance so that it would establish the policy limits for the City’s use of surveillance technologies in general, as opposed to delving into very specific details which could result in operational problems for various City departments” [emphasis mine].

There are a number of problems with the City Manager’s report to the council on the ordinance.

First and most importantly, the report misunderstands a central purpose of the ordinance: to give power to the people of Cambridge, via their elected representatives on the City Council, to determine what kinds of surveillance technologies city departments will use, and under what circumstances, with what rules in place. The City Manger suggests that the ordinance would require too much work of City staff, but that’s not correct. In fact, City departments can ask the City Council for relatively broad authority to deploy certain types of surveillance equipment. For example, if the City Manager wanted to use surveillance cameras at City Hall, he would be able to submit a request to the council that would cover the replacement of cameras and the installation of future cameras. If the council thought that appropriate, they would vote to give the Manager that discretionary power. If, on the other hand, the Manager wanted to begin to use facial recognition systems on those cameras, he would be required to go back to the Council with new documentation and a new request, to use a different type of surveillance technology for different purposes, and with different rules in place.

Second, the City Manager suggests that existing laws protect Cambridge residents, because the police department will get warrants to use technologies like GPS trackers and cell phone monitoring tools. But technology changes much faster than the law, which is why this ordinance is designed to require public approval for new technologies. Stingrays are a perfect example of how rights are violated when technology gets out ahead of the law.

Third, the Manager says existing state law on records retention can supplant Cambridge specific rules about how long City agencies should retain data obtained via surveillance equipment. That’s not right, either. The Massachusetts public records law and records retention schedule describe minimum requirements for data retention, not maximum requirements. Those of us concerned about privacy aren’t worried that police or City agencies will delete surveillance data too soon. To the contrary, we are worried the agencies will retain the data for too long. 

Finally, the City Manager’s report makes it seem as if giving the public a voice in critical matters relating to surveillance and privacy is too burdensome a task to make worthwhile. But democracy isn’t the most efficient form of government for a reason. Other local governments have passed ordinances like the one the ACLU supports in Cambridge, and there’s no good reason why the People’s Republic can’t join those localities in passing a comprehensive, well reasoned, and protective law to ensure democratic oversight of spying.

Another document in the agenda for tonight’s meeting makes clear why public approval for surveillance is so important. In that transmission, the City Manager informs the council that he plans to allow MIT researchers to install person and vehicle tracking sensors, as well as infrared cameras, on City streets. City Councilors may be fine with that, and the Cambridge voters they represent might be fine with it, too. But the only way to know for sure that the technologies deployed on the streets of the City align with the values and priorities of its people is to allow for the democratic process, not administrative staff, to decide. 

If you agree, come out to the meeting tonight at 5:30 and add your voice. 


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