Cambridge, Mass., PD Need Council Approval to Use Surveillance Tech

A new ordinance would require police officials to ask the city council for permission before using new and existing surveillance technology within city limits. The policy was part of a collaboration between police officials and the ACLU.

by Adam Sennott, Wicket Local Metro / December 13, 2018
Shutterstock/pixinoo

(TNS) — City departments will now have to get approval from the city council before they can implement any new surveillance technology.

The council adopted a proposed surveillance ordinance Monday night after two years of community meetings and collaboration with the police department and the ACLU.

The ordinance also requires city officials to get approval to use technologies already in use in different ways, according to a statement from the ACLU. Technologies covered by the ordinance include automatic license plate readers, video surveillance, biometric surveillance technology including facial and voice recognition software and databases, social media monitoring software, police body-worn cameras and predictive policing software.

The ordinance would also require city officials to get approval from the council in order to turn on eight cameras the Department of Homeland Security installed in the city in 2009, designed to help 911 dispatchers view evacuation routes during public emergencies, according to Jeremy Warnick, communications director for Cambridge Police.

"If they were activated, as far as I am aware, we would go through the same public deliberation," Warnick said.

Councilor Craig Kelley said the goal of the ordinance is to make sure the city government doesn't engage in unwarranted surveillance in Cambridge, and provides elected officials oversight over the use of such technologies.

"That brings accountability into the system and transparency into the discussions," Kelley said. "And that's what this ordinance was all about."

Kelley said he began working on a potential surveillance ordinance about six years ago.

"That was all about surveillance cameras," Kelley said. "It started with concerns that the Homeland Security cameras that we got might be turned on and the data be fed to the Boston Regional Intelligence Center."

Despite the concerns, the surveillance issue got put on the back burner, Kelley said, until about two years ago the ACLU approached city officials with a model ordinance.

"It's taken two years to work through the challenges of that ordinance to make sure that everyone feels comfortable with it," Kelley said. "To have the ACLU, the police department, the city manager, the City Council, to have all these people thinking this ordinance is a good ordinance and worth passing is pretty impressive."

"For me the ordinance doesn't go far enough, but government is all about compromise and so forth and I'm sure that everyone involved in this discussion would have changed something here, there, or someplace else, but we got to a good place," Kelley said. "And as technology and expectations and so forth change I'm sure we'll continue to rethink what the ordinance may or may not want to cover, and what types of policies the city or departments may or may not want to have [and] what type of education we may or may not want to do to help people in the city protect themselves against unwanted surveillance and to protect themselves online."

Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts' Technology for Library program, called the ordinance a "victory," in a statement released by the ACLU, and praised city officials for their "commitment to local democracy."

"The city of Cambridge has demonstrated that it is a model for other local governments by embracing the call to ensure that new surveillance technologies are only adopted and used in accordance with the people's will," Crockford said. "The ACLU looks forward to continued collaboration with the city as it works to implement the ordinance over the coming year."

©2018 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass. Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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