SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Aug. 12, 2021) – The recent battle over Shotspotter technology in San Diego underscores the importance of oversight and accountability for surveillance technology.
San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit asked the city council to approve a new contract for Shotspotter audio technology without any process to address community concerns. Community pushback led by the TRUST SD Coalition was enough to get the contract renewal pulled from the council agenda last month. But activists in the city continue to push for two surveillance oversight ordinances that would create a process for evaluating surveillance technology before the police department could obtain or use it.
The process created by the TRUST ordinance would include impact studies and community engagement meetings before the council could approve the acquisition of any surveillance technology. The second ordinance would create a Privacy Advisory Board made up of experts, community members, transparency advocates and lawyers to conduct annual reviews of existing surveillance programs.
The San Diego City Council gave preliminary approval to both ordinances last November, but they still have not completed the required review process for a final vote.
Shotspotter uses a network of microphones installed along city streets. Gunshots trigger the mics and ostensibly allow police to pinpoint the gunfire. But the technology isn’t 100 percent accurate. Jackhammers, engine noise, fireworks and nail guns have been known to trigger the system. Once the system detects “gunfire.” Police consider everybody in the area a potential threat. In March, Chicago police shot a 13-year-old boy who was running away with his hands up while responding to a Shotspotter alert. The boy had not fired any shots.
According to an op-ed published by Voice of San Diego, “a study by Northwestern University’s MacArthur Justice Center found that 89 percent of Shotspotter alerts in Chicago turned up no evidence of gun-related crime.”
“The microphones on these flawed technologies listen to us without our consent. They give police an excuse to intervene violently in neighborhoods where they have not been called.”
Despite Shotspotter’s claims that the microphones cannot detect human voices, the cities of Oakland, Calif. and New Bedford, Conn. discovered that human voices can in fact be recorded by the technology.
Although activists were able to stop the Shotspotter contract renewal, in a statement, the organization said the battle is far from over.
“Despite today’s failed attempt by SDPD to escape transparency and oversight, we can expect that they will continue to try again. It is time to implement the TRUST ordinances to create a process that will provide transparency and accountability on surveillance technology.”
Voice of San Diego said the ordinances were created specifically to deal with issues such as Shotspotter.
“Conversations with technological experts and impacted community members must take place in order to have a functioning democracy that truly represents the people’s interests.”
With such a process in place, information such as the system’s inaccuracy and the fact that the system could potentially be used to listen in to conversations on the street would come to light. With an educated public, it would be much harder for police to obtain this type of surveillance technology without at least addressing public concerns.
The ordinance is similar to CCOPS model legislation developed by the ACLU with input from the Tenth Amendment Center. To date, at least 21 cities have passed ordinances requiring oversight and transparency for surveillance technology.
While these ordinances don’t prohibit the acquisition or use of surveillance technology, they do create a process to limit it by ensuring surveillance technology is operated with transparency and oversight. It also gives residents a say in the process and provides 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.
Limiting surveillance at the local level can also put a dent in the ever-growing national surveillance state.
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.
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