One year ago today, whistleblower Edward Snowden confirmed that the NSA was secretly engaged in a massive program of warrantless surveillance of the American people. Since then, the ACLU has worked both in the courts and in Congress to halt the agency’s abuses of power and violations of our constitutional rights. But the NSA isn’t the only agency guilty of dragnet surveillance without oversight. State and local governments have adopted surveillance technology at an astonishing rate, often without the public’s oversight and approval, and in some cases even hiding their use from the courts. Just like the NSA, our state and local agencies need to be transparent and accountable to the people they serve.
Today, state and local law enforcement agencies have access to a wide range of surveillance technologies, from drones to automated license plate recognition (ALPR) systems to facial-recognition smartphone apps. These tools can potentially be used to infringe upon our fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression and association, tracking our location, associations, and more. Yet all too often agencies not only acquire and use these technologies without a robust public debate but work hard to keep them secret. This secrecy prevents valuable public input into limits and safeguards to prevent potential harms. It also undermines the principles of transparency and accountability that are essential to our democratic system.
We shouldn’t need a local Edward Snowden in order to ensure that public debate and oversight accompany any proposed use of surveillance technology. Instead, we should insist upon it up front. We need our cities and counties to adopt ordinances requiring local oversight of surveillance technology, appoint privacy oversight committees, and place legal limits on how data collected can be used. And we need our state government to not just go through the motions of considering a wide range of privacy-enhancing bills but actually turn those bills into law. Other states have already decided, after public debate, that the unrestricted use of technologies such as ALPRs or drones is not worth the fiscal or civil liberties cost. Why is California lagging behind?
So one year after the Snowden revelations started, we should celebrate the growing efforts to end the federal government’s unconstitutional surveillance programs — but we should also make sure that we don’t just rein in the NSA and call it good. Making sure that state and local agencies also respect individual rights and the democratic process is also essential, both for its own sake and in order to influence the federal conversation. It’s time to remind our government that it is supposed to be transparent to the people, all the time — not just when an Edward Snowden forces it to be.
Nicole A. Ozer
ACLU Northern California