MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (Oct. 23, 2016) – The Miami Beach city commission will consider an ordinance that would take the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into a broader national surveillance state.

Commissioner Michael Grieco introduced the measure earlier this month. The ordinance would require any city department, including the Miami Beach Police Department, to get commission approval at a public meeting before obtaining surveillance technology such as stingray devices, automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), cameras and drones. It would also require city commission approval within 120 days of passage for continued use of existing technology.

The process outlined by the proposed ordinance would require full public disclosure. This would create an environment of transparency and accountability, and would naturally serve to limit the types of equipment police departments can acquire. It also includes robust reporting requirement departments using surveillance technology would have to follow.

“When people think of surveillance, people think of the FBI and the Patriot Act,” Greater Miami ACLU chapter president Jeffrey Hearne told the Miami News Times. “But if you really look at it, more and more local jurisdictions are using this technology, and there need to be protections locally.”

Grieco adapted the ordinance from model language written by the ACLU. Miami Beach was one of 11 cities that committed to considering this type of ordinance as part of the #TakeCTRL initiative.

Local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, many law enforcement agencies can obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight. The federal government often provides grants and other funding sources for this spy-gear, meaning local governments can keep their purchase “off the books.” Members of the community, and even elected officials, often don’t know their police departments possess technology capable of sweeping up electronic data, phone calls and location information.

In some cases, the feds even require law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements, wrapping surveillance programs in an even darker shroud of secrecy. We know for a fact the FBI required the Baltimore Police Department to sign such an agreement when it obtained stingray technology. This policy of nondisclosure even extends to the courtroom, with the feds actually instructing prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions about the department’s use of stingray devices on the stand during a trial, citing a federal nondisclosure agreement.

As put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”

The Miami Beach ordinance would prevent local police from obtaining technology without public knowledge, and would provide an avenue for concerned residents to oppose and stop the purchase of spy gear.

Impact on Federal Programs

Information collected by local law enforcement undoubtedly ends up in federal databases. The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, local data collection using ALPRs, stingrays and other technologies create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans, and obtain and store information on millions of Americans, including phone calls, emails, web browsing history and text messages, all with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.

The federal government encourages and funds surveillance technology including ALPRs, drones and stingrays at the state and local level across the U.S.. In return, it undoubtedly gains access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By requiring approval and placing the acquisition of spy gear in the public spotlight, local governments can take the first step toward limiting the surveillance state at both the local and national level.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

The proposed Miami Beach ordinance takes an important first step toward limiting the use of surveillance technology in the city.

Mike Maharrey