Category Archives: Surveillance

The many ways the government is watching us with an emphasis on digital spying

Court Upholds Legal Challenge Under California Statewide Stingray Law


by Marilyn Fidler. Originally posted on LawFare

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.

The law was untested in court, allowing localities to interpret the law to their benefit, which, for city governments, often means the least resource-intensive view. Vallejo, for example, argued that as long as someone in the city government created a usage and privacy policy, it was in compliance with the law. The court’s ruling reaffirmed that a public decision-making process about when and how these devices are used is required by law.

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SF Police Sued Over Public/Private Camera Use To Surveil BLM Protests


Three San Francisco residents who participated in protests that followed the death of George Floyd, have sued the San Francisco Police Department for use of the camera network of the Union Square Business Improvement District to monitor those protests.

Hope Williams, Nathan Sheard and Nestor Reyes, represented by attorneys at the ACLU of Northern California and Electronic Frontier Foundation filed Williams vs San Francisco under San Francisco’s May 2019 surveillance oversight ordinance.

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Vallejo police expand community surveillance with license plate readers


By Andres Torres. Originally printed on

VALLEJO, Calif. – Vallejo Police Department on Tuesday announced a partnership with Atlanta-based startup, Flock Safety that expands surveillance using license plate readers (LPR) throughout Vallejo. 

The surveillance technology is being touted as a crime-fighting tool. Police have “strategically placed” 10 LPRs throughout the city at a cost of $2,496 a year each, which includes maintenance and installation. Police said there is at least one privatized installation in a neighborhood through a homeowners association. 

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Ringing Alarm Bells


A study of implicit bias in consumer surveillance device use in San Francisco

Noting the rapid spread of Ring/Law Enforcement collaborative agreements in Northern California, Oakland Privacy embarked on a study of the content that device owners in San Francisco post to the Ring smartphone application “Neighbors”.

Working with a sample set of 131 videos drawn from the city of San Francisco and scraped by researchers at MIT, our volunteers reviewed the videos (several times) and accompanying post content.

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Criticism Mounts Over Trump’s Immigrant Biometric Data Plan


Written by Raoul Walawalker, political commentator for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of immigration lawyers based in the US, UK and Ireland

Just as the wearing or non-wearing of masks can show how polarised views across the US can be over the coronavirus pandemic, September was a month that also showed a sharp divergence of opinion over immigration laws and the use of biometrics.

On September 11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) presented a proposed regulation for a major expansion in its collection and use of biometric data in the enforcement and administration of immigration laws, even as some states were announcing plans to ban or scale back their use of biometrics following growing concerns over privacy and evidence of racial and other in-built biases.

A draft of the proposal was seen ten days earlier by BuzzFeed News and had already stirred bafflement at the scale of proposed data-gathering. Also noted was the absence of a reasoned attempt to justify placing all immigrants (including minors, millions of legal immigrants and US sponsors) under unprecedented levels of surveillance and proof of identity burdens.

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40 Groups Ask Oversight Board For Facial Recognition Moratorium


40 groups, including Media Alliance, wrote to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) urging it to call for the suspension of all facial recognition use pending further review.

The letter states: The PCLOB has a unique responsibility, set out in statute, to assess technologies and policies that impact the privacy of Americans after 9-11 and to make recommendations to the President and to the executive branch. The rapid and unregulated deployment of facial recognition poses a direct threat to “the precious liberties that are vital to our way of life”. We urge the PCLOB to act now to safeguard the privacy rights of Americans.


40 Civil Rights Groups Ask Colleges to Keep Facial Recognition Off Campuses


An open letter from an assortment of civil rights groups, including Media Alliance, asked university administrators to keep their campuses free of facial recognition.

On March 2, students and faculty at schools across the country will organize to reject facial recognition’s false promises of safety, and stand against the idea of biased 24/7 tracking and analysis of everyone on campus.

Dozens of schools have clarified that they don’t use or plan to use the technology, while about one third have not responded. Three schools—George Washington University, Duke University, and American University—gave vague statements that implied they may have plans to use facial recognition in the future. And UCLA and Tufts University currently use or have plans to use the technology on its campus.

Campuses that have stated they have no intention of using facial recognition include Boston College, Brown University, Columbia University, Colorado State University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, DePaul University, MIT, Michigan State University, Georgia Tech, NYU, Hampshire College, Kent State University, Rice University, University of Florida, Oregon State University, UPenn, and John Hopkins University. University of San Francisco clarified that it abandoned its controversial facial recognition program in 2016. Activists made multiple attempts to contact every institution on the scorecard. More than 30 schools did not respond after multiple attempts, including Harvard, Yale, Oberlin, Howard University, Ohio State, Reed, and Sarah Lawrence College.


No PVE In California


A 70-strong coalition of social justice and civil rights groups led by M-Power Change, Asian-Americans Advancing Justice and CAIR California (including Media Alliance) sent a letter to CA Governor Gavin Newson asking him to end the reinstatement of a washed-over version of the DHS Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, now repackaged as a California state program called Preventing Violent Extremism. (PVE).

The letter states “PVE programs are deceptively framed as public health and youth programs that offer social services to marginalized communities. Such a framing masks the true objectives; to surveil, profile and collect intelligence on Muslim, immigrant and Black and Brown communities…. These programs stigmatize the very communities they purport to help, making them less likely to seek legitimate social services for fear it will lead to unwarranted law enforcement scrutiny.

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