Proposal: No New Surveillance Tools Without Public Input

In response to growing concerns about government spying and personal privacy, Santa Clara County will study a proposal that would require public input before purchasing any surveillance tools.

According to a report released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 90 law enforcement agencies in the state use surveillance technology, including license plate scanners, cameras and facial recognition software. Yet, those same agencies sought input only 14 percent of the time, the ACLU report states.

The study offers a glimpse of the tools that have transformed modern policing, such as cell phone trackers, body-worn cameras and drones. California agencies have spent upward of $65 million on 180 surveillance technology programs, the report states. Of that number, only 26 programs came up for public discussion.

The plan to regulate surveillance technology on the county level comes up for consideration at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. The memo, signed by Supervisor Joe Simitian, asks for greater accountability in both acquiring surveillance equipment and managing the data it collects.

Simitian says the ACLU approached him several months ago to join in the project, which has enlisted the support of a broad coalition of elected officials. The group even provided a model ordinance to work with.

"We had worked together quite a bit when I was in the state legislature," Simtian said, noting that he served on the Select Committee on Privacy for both the State Assembly and State Senate.

"I've been working on these issues for the last decade and a half and what I've observed is an erosion of public privacy in an incremental fashion," Simtian said. "It's sort of drip, drip, drip."

“Just to be clear, do I think there's an appropriate use for license plate readers, closed circuit cameras and drone technology in the public arena? I absolutely do,” he continued. “Do I think there are a series of questions that need to be asked and answered before we use that technology? Absolutely.”

With enough public input, he says, the county can strike a balance.

"I don't think it's mutually exclusive,” said Simitian. “I think we can protect and respect people's privacy."

In addition to law enforcement concerns, Simitian said his memo is part of larger plan to bring attention to raise privacy concerns about all county work, including hospital and tax records.

Simitian’s memo asks for the county to draft a plan that would put in place more checks and balances before acquiring certain surveillance equipment. It would require all surveillance technology proposals to include an impact report, explaining the technology, its purpose, proposed deployment locations, monetary cost and potential impacts on civil liberties. It would also include a legally enforceable surveillance policy that limits when data can be accessed, who could see it and how long it’s stored.

"Candidly, when I arrived at the county I was surprised at the failure to consider privacy implications in all of the work the county did," he said.

More from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agenda for November 18, 2014:

  • The late Victor Calvo, who served in the State Assembly from 1974 until 1980, will get a county building named after him. The Mountain View resident also served on that city’s council, the county Board of Supervisors, the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Coastal Commission.
  • A minute after 4am Nov. 5, Santa Clara County became the last of Bay Area’s nine counties to come up with a total count of all precinct ballots. A website glitch prevented updated results around 9:30pm on election night. And a longtime IT manager for the Registrar of Voters resigned the day before Election Day, spurring the Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey to call for a review of election results by the Secretary of State. It was a mess. Simitian is calling for an internal review to pinpoint the procedural and technological problems that slowed things down. He suggests teaming up with the Silicon Valley Talent Partnership—which creates pro bono partnerships between public and private agencies—to figure out if there’s any interest from the local private sector in helping the county speed up the vote counts.
  • Bushey has submitted a preliminary plan to acquire a new, faster voting system. Although it may not be in place until 2017.

WHAT: Board of Supervisors meets
WHEN: 9am Tuesday
WHERE: County Government Center, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose
INFO: Clerk of the Board, 408.299.5001

Josh Koehn contributed to this report. 

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Acquisition of the equipment is not the issue. That should not be micromanaged by “the people.” How the equipment is used is the issue. That needs some oversight, but not micromanaging by every Tom, Dick, and Harriet with an agenda.

    • Is this the same ACLU that stands up and cheers every time a piece of videotape surfaces that depicts a police officer in as negative a light as possible and/or tends to reinforce the ACLU’s historical preconceived, unvarying conviction that cops are nothing but knuckle-dragging racist bullies? Is this the same ACLU that screams for cameras in every police car and implanted in every cop, and recording at all times?

      Cops are out in public too, it isn’t just the poor, oppressed, framed-up criminal that would be photographed out in public, often attacking the cop and resisting arrest.

      One would think that the ACLU would already have its own drones hovering over every cop who is just doing his job then beaming these images back to the ACLU Central Command where each clip is heavily edited (i.e., “Zimmermanized”) until it fits the ACLU’s agenda before being emailed to all compliant news outlets or sent to a Jumbotron at City Hall. Of course, what would the ACLU and Al Sharpton do when the videotape shows that their race baiting accusations are unfounded and the crook actually did do what he was accused of doing? The answer, of course, is “nothing”.

  2. The “model ordinance” is nothing more than a giant “Kick Me” sign intended to be stuck on the backs of local governments, as it asks that, rather than answering to themselves and the voting public, our officials answer to the ACLU and its army of litigious zealots (and do so with a willingness to pay for attorney’s fees).

  3. > a proposal that would require public input before purchasing any surveillance tools.

    How about when elected-by-the-public legislative bodies look at broad public issues like drone surveillance and make broad police guidelines.

    Isn’t that “public input”?

    > ” micromanaging by every Tom, Dick, and Harriet with an agenda” is not the kind of “public input” we need.


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