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California Should Keep an Eye on Police Surveillance Tech (Editorial)

The policy gaps around use of surveillance tools by police has caused a stir in news headlines, advocacy circles and at the state Capitol.

by The Orange County Register / February 22, 2018

(TNS) — In theory, at least, California’s law enforcement agencies are bound by state law to report to lawmakers and the public on their use of various surveillance technologies.

In practice, that reporting by police and sheriff’s departments in the hundreds of jurisdictions around our large state is often slow to happen — well beyond nominal legal deadlines — or, much worse, doesn’t happen at all.

That’s what Los Angeles Times reporters found when they reviewed reporting records for a law that already exists overseeing law enforcement’s automatic license-plate readers and devices that simulate cell phone towers, known as Stingrays.

That law was written by a San Francisco Peninsula legislator who frequently is on the side of full disclosure of policing methods, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. Last year Hill tried to improve those disclosure laws after the Times journalists found out about the lax reporting, and expand them to all surveillance technology. But that bill was put into Never-Never Land in a committee because legislative colleagues of Hill’s thought it would cost too much.

But now Hill is bringing back legislation to require law enforcement agencies in California to fully list all of their surveillance equipment and to create public policies for their use of the technology.

We applaud him for it, and hope that Hill continues his quest for full disclosure during a time in which policing agencies seek to use equipment and software that is ever able to pry deeply into people’s lives.

“It’s important to strike a balance between the needs of law enforcement in crime-fighting and the public’s right-to-know and rights to privacy,” Hill has written. “That’s what this bill strives to achieve.”

The proposed legislation, SB1186, was introduced by Hill last week, and includes this language: “This bill would, beginning July 1, 2019, require each law enforcement agency … to submit to its governing body at a regularly scheduled hearing, open to the public, a proposed Surveillance Use Policy for the use of each type of surveillance technology and the information collected … The bill would require the law enforcement agency to cease using the surveillance technology within 30 days if the proposed plan is not adopted.”

In a time in which common crooks and more complicated bad guys increasingly use high technology in aid of their criminal acts, no responsible Californian wants to see law enforcement stay in the Stone Age. But Hill’s bill notes that when police agencies acquire new high-tech gadgetry, “those technologies are often used without any written rules or civilian oversight, and the ability of surveillance technology to enhance public safety should be balanced with reasonable safeguards for residents’ civil liberties and privacy.”

This is the bottom line for the need for the new oversight: “Decisions about whether to use surveillance technology for data collection and how to use and store the information collected should not be made by the agencies that would operate the technology, but by the elected bodies that are directly accountable to the residents in their communities,” the bill argues.

Nationally, civil rights lawyers and other advocates say more transparency on surveillance is necessary due to legitimate worries about eavesdropping on immigrant and Muslim communities. California law should lead the way on protecting the public from too much governmental secrecy.

©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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