HATTIESBURG, Miss. (Nov. 7, 2016) – The Hattiesburg City Council 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.

Councilwoman Deborah Delgado will sponsor the ordinance. It would require the Hattiesburg Police Department to get council approval at a public meeting before obtaining surveillance technology such as stingray devices, automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), cameras and drones.

According to the Hattiesburg American, the proposed ordinance would require police to publish a report explaining the purpose of any surveillance technology and where they plan to use it. The police department would then have to present that information in the form of a proposal to the city council. The council would vote on the proposal after a public hearing.

“So that way the citizens would know where these (items) are going to go, how it’s going to impact them, all that stuff,” ACLU of Mississippi director of advocacy and policy Erik Fleming said during a recent meeting announcing the proposed ordinance. “All that stuff should be in the report. And there also should be, accompanying that, a surveillance policy for the use of that device — how the police are going to regulate themselves in using that device. The whole object is to make sure that if we’re going to use this technology for the benefit of protecting the citizens of Hattiesburg; the last thing we need to sacrifice is the privacy rights of the citizens of Hattiesburg.”

Delgado is adapting the ordinance from model language written by the ACLU. Hattiesburg was one of 11 cities that committed to considering this type of ordinance as part of the #TakeCTRL initiative.

Hattiesburg Police Department Chief Anthony Parker has already come out in opposition to the ordinance, saying it lumps all surveillance technology together, and some spy gear should remain secret. According to the Hattiesburg American, Parker also objects to the council telling the police department how to do its job.

“Hattiesburg Police Department is one of the most professional agencies in the state or in the country, and we follow certain criteria and guidelines that are set forth,” he said. “We are guided by policy, we’re guided by state law, and we follow all those guidelines already. So there’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done before you even consider implementing this (ordinance).”

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 privacysos.org 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 proposed Hattiesburg 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 Hattiesburg ordinance takes an important first step toward limiting the use of surveillance technology in the city.

Mike Maharrey

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