When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn into office, it marked the first time in American history that Californians held two of the three highest offices in the federal government. No, President Biden is not from the Golden State, but Vice President Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi both hail from the Bay Area. And with Attorney General Xavier Becerra holding a key cabinet position, officials from California now have a sizable role in influencing the Biden agenda.
The incoming administration is rightly prioritizing economic relief and Covid-19 vaccine deployment. On other issues, they’ll have to navigate narrow Democratic majorities in Congress, in which some progressive policies could be nonstarters. To avoid gridlock, these high-ranking Californians can identify policies with broad, bipartisan support, perhaps taking a page out of their home state’s playbook.
In recent years, California has become a national leader on privacy rights. Oakland, San Francisco, and Santa Clara County, among other municipalities, have spearheaded strong local laws to oversee governmental use of people’s private information and data.
40 civil rights and immigration groups, including Media Alliance, wrote to the Biden Administration about plans to replace physical walls with surveillance walls at the Mexico border.
The letter expressed concerns about a sharp increase in biometric data collection, immigrants taking more remote and deathly routes to avoid detection, and the use of the border for “testing” highly invasive military grade surveillance.
United to Save the Mission, an umbrella coalition of community based organizations located in SF’s Mission District wrote a letter of objection to a proposed private camera network from the Castro District Business Improvement District, joining the Harvey Milk and Alice B. Toklas Democratic Clubs and the Castro LBGTQ District in opposing the Castro cameras.
Facial recognition software has become a common part of American life. It’s used by government employment agencies to verify an applicant’s identity, by landlords to monitor tenants, and by police in their investigations, which has resulted in some wrongful arrests. Indeed, studies show that facial recognition algorithms are often inaccurate when it comes to identifying women and people with dark skin tones. Privacy advocates concerned by how law enforcement has used surveillance technology cheered Amazon’s recent decision to extend a moratorium on police use of its facial recognition software, though Amazon gave no reason why it was doing so. We’ll talk to Bay Area experts about how facial recognition technology is being used, why it needs to be closely monitored, and what cities, states and the federal government are doing — or not doing — to regulate its use.
Matt Cagle, technology and civil rights attorney with the ACLU
Brian Hofer,, chair and executive director, Secure Justice
Daniel E. Ho, Scott Professor of Law, Stanford University and also an Associate Director at Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence
Tracy Rosenberg, executive director, Media Alliance
The US remains wholly incapable of tracing Covid-19 contagion, but if it tried, we might wind up with “the worst of both worlds” – a horror of coercion and confusion that still failed to stop the epidemic.
“Communities have reasonable fears that at least some law enforcement agencies might use access to contact tracing data to harass low income communities.”
Ann Garrison spoke to Bay Area privacy activist Tracy Rosenberg about the danger that data contact tracing to track the spread of COVID-19 will become available to the surveillance state.
Ann Garrison:Many fear that digital contact tracing to stop the spread of COVID-19 will expand surveillance states’ ability to curtail privacy and control their populations. Can you explain what contact tracing is?
Tracy Rosenberg: Contact tracing is the process of creating a map of a person’s movements and associations in order to identify the possible spread of infectious disease. Before the age of digital technology, it was an onerous process of paper surveys, which while they contained very personal information, had some practical limitations on any additional use. In the age of digital technology, the ability to retain, repurpose and search large data chains is greater than it has ever been in human history. Contact tracing data, when performed by government public health agencies, is medical health data and is protected by the same laws that protect other health data.
AG: What dangers does it pose?
TR: Well, there are quite a few. One is emergency protocols. A large tracing program set up under emergency conditions can often lead to incomplete frameworks and poorly trained personnel, including some with relatively little or no familiarity with health data protections. When data protections, storage and access protocols are not well-planned, leaks, hacks and unauthorized access sometimes occur.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office is being sued for failing to release records about its use of surveillance equipment, location tracking technologies and data collection operations, according to a lawsuit filed last month.
The Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project, a watchdog group named after the late computer programmer and hacker, filed the lawsuit in November with the Fresno County Superior Court after more than two years of attempting to retrieve documents.
According to the lawsuit, the group made six public records requests between December 2018 and January 2019 over the agency’s use of unarmed drones, license plate readers, thermal cameras, social media monitoring and predictive algorithmic software as well as any potential contracts with federal law enforcement agencies.
This Open Vallejo podcast focuses on the City of Vallejo’s purchase of a cell site simulator or stingray, a dangerous and expensive piece of surveillance equipment used to track the location of a cell phone by impersonating a cell phone tower.
Oakland Privacy, the Bay Area’s ant-surveillance coalition, sued the City of Vallejo to enforce state law and require the City to allow public comment and a City Council vote on the device’s usage policy.
MA ED Tracy Rosenberg is a contributor to this edition of the Open Vallejo podcast entitled “Tiny Constables.
In late November, a California state court issued a final decision interpreting a 2015 California state law regulating government agency use of cell site simulators, devices that can be used to locate and track cell phones. The devices are commonly known as “stingrays.” The challenge—the first brought under this law—argued that the City of Vallejo was not in compliance with the law’s requirement that a local public body approve, at a public meeting, both police acquisition of the technology and a policy determining how and when these devices can be used. The court upheld this view of the law, providing an important victory for transparency.
Stingray devices present serious privacy risks because they allow law enforcement to track the physical location of anyone with a cell phone in real time. Originally billed as anti-terrorism tools, police often use them in routine investigations of nonviolent crimes. Furthermore, stingray devices can access data about all phones in an area, ranging from a few hundred yards to about 2 miles, even if the police are interested in only one device. Because of these “dragnet” capabilities, I and others have argued that localities should have the opportunity to decide if and how stingray and similar devices should be used in their communities. The California state law mandates this local decision-making process, providing an opportunity for needed transparency and democratic oversight.