ST. LOUIS, Mo. (July 20, 2020) –  Last week, a St. Louis City Board of Alderman committee passed an ordinance that would set the stage to limit the acquisition and use of surveillance technology by law enforcement and other city agencies. The proposed law would also help limit the impact of the federal surveillance state.

Alderwoman Annie Rice (D-Ward 8) introduced Board Bill Number 95 (BB95) along with 10 other board members. Under the proposed ordinance, city entities would have to submit a detailed surveillance technology use plan and receive Board of Alderman approval before “acquiring, using, expanding the use or capacity of, or expending funds for the use of a surveillance technology; and before acquiring, borrowing, or using surveillance technology or surveillance data from another person or entity, or providing or sharing city-owned or possessed surveillance technology, or the use of any surveillance technology or data therefrom.” The ordinance would also require at least one public hearing before a vote on the surveillance technology plan.

“What we’re asking is for there to be, in the City of St. Louis, civilian oversight of any of our surveillance technology that is out there right now and that could be coming in the future,” Rice said during the July 13 meeting.

The aldermanic Public Safety Committee passed the ordinance 4-1. It will now move to the full board for consideration.

According to the St. Louis American, a city audit found that the Board of Public Service spent about $4 million on the deployment of cameras and license plate readers (LPRs) using ward capital funds and other funding sources some of which include federal and private funding sources.

According to a 2018 report in the Riverfront Times, police already operate more than 500 surveillance cameras throughout the city.

“The city launched the Real Time Crime Center in May 2015, allowing for police to monitor activity throughout the city in, yes, real time via surveillance cameras, including license plate recognition systems, which scan traffic for stolen cars. Police say the privately funded center has increased safety for both citizens and police officers.”

Passage of the proposed ordinance would take the first step toward ensuring surveillance technology is operated with transparency and oversight in St. Louis. It would also give residents a say in the process and provide an avenue to limit the proliferation of surveillance technology.

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.”

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 fusion centers and a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE.

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. 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. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

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.

Mike Maharrey