Category Archives: Surveillance

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

Taming High Tech Law and Order in the Wild Wild West

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By Tracy Rosenberg. Originally published on Medium. 

I didn’t grow up in California. Instead I grew up in the relatively staid brick-lined streets of the Northeast, where history looks like pilgrim hats.

I understood Blazing Saddles better than Stagecoach.

But life can take you in some unexpected directions. I grew up to become a privacy advocate on the West Coast. And when I started to lobby my local government about the ways law enforcement surveillance and high-tech gadgetry were colluding to erode civil rights, I ran into the legacy of the autonomous sheriff in the “frontier” states.

Continue reading Taming High Tech Law and Order in the Wild Wild West

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35 Civil Rights Organizations Tell Amazon To Get Out Of The Facial Recognition Business

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35 civil rights organizations (including Media Alliance)  joined a sign-on letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, also the owner of the Washington Post newspaper, to desist from marketing facial recognition technology to the government.

Public records requests reveal that the company has developed and sold a prototype product called “Rekognition” to police departments in Florida and Oregon.  Continue reading 35 Civil Rights Organizations Tell Amazon To Get Out Of The Facial Recognition Business

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Richmond Cuts Ties To ICE Data Brokers

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On May 15th, the City Council of Richmond, CA voted 6-1 to enact a Sanctuary City Contracting ordinance, sponsored by Councilmembers Jovanka Beckles and Ada Recinos.

The Sanctuary City ordinance (model legislation can be found here) was developed by the 19-member Deport ICE coalition which seeks to strengthen sanctuary protections in California cities.

Continue reading Richmond Cuts Ties To ICE Data Brokers

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Ending Secret Surveillance in California

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Update: 8/18: Sadly, Senate Bill 1186 did not advance beyond Assembly Appropriations this year. Too much law enforcement resistance. But rather than accept bad amendments, local advocates will continue to reach out to cities and counties to craft meaningful surveillance oversight on the local level – as we have been doing since 2013. Local is where it matters and real change always starts at the bottom and filters upwards, not the reverse. Visit www.oaklandprivacy.org for updates and tools and resources to bring surveillance transparency to your town.

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Privacy is the news story of the year.

Intersections between growing aggression from Homeland Security towards undocumented people, so-called “black identity extremists”, journalists, anti-fascism protestors, and pretty much anyone resisting the Trumpian agenda, are melding with the privatization of information  with new industries spouting up to to share and disseminate data collected by high-tech mass surveillance.

It’s a scary time. We need the power to keep ourselves safe.  Continue reading Ending Secret Surveillance in California

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Civil Rights Advocates Urge Ethical Review of Axon’s Police Technologies

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Today, Media Alliance joined The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Upturn, Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology and 37 leading civil rights, racial justice and community organizations sharing a series of recommendations with the “artificial intelligence (AI) ethics board” launched this morning by Axon, a major U.S. police technology vendor. Continue reading Civil Rights Advocates Urge Ethical Review of Axon’s Police Technologies

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The Time For Surveillance Transparency Is Now

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By Tracy Roosenberg, Originally published in Berkeleyside

The list of spying gadgets available to American law enforcement agencies in the second decade of the 21st century is vast. Drones, stingrays, iris scanners, license plate readers, FLIRS. I could keep on naming them for a long time. George Orwell’s 1984 is less of an abstract futuristic warning and more of an eerily prescient fortune cookie.

Despite their terrifying and intrusive aspects, not all uses of surveillance technology are bad. If you are lost in rough terrain, a drone may find you faster than anything else possibly could. The infrared cameras on FLIR units can find hot spots remaining from fires and explosions and prevent them from re-igniting with sometimes tragic results.

But differentiating benign and appropriate uses of powerful equipment from those that are invasive and downright unconstitutional has lagged way behind their ubiquitous use. Agency after agency, from the vast and unaccountable NSA to the NYPD and the teensy Calexico Police Department, has been exposed using spying equipment in unacceptable ways. Lack of transparency means human rights violations often don’t come to light until long afterward – or at all.

With the never-ending war on terror feeding a vast Department of Homeland Security apparatus that is now in the hands of an unstable president, the consequences of errant surveillance use can be dire for First Amendment-protected targets like journalists, mosques, DAPL/anti-pipeline activists, cannabis clubs, immigrants, and “black identity extremists,” Bulk collection devices like the license plate readers in use in many cities around the Bay Area scoop up records of our comings and goings indiscriminately and without our knowledge. Alameda County health officials just removed a previously unknown license plate reader from the parking lot of Highland Hospital’s emergency room after a public records act request revealed the machine was sending tens of thousands of license plate scans to the Homeland Security fusion center, as if seeking medical care is a crime to be reported to the IRS, the FBI, and ICE.

The collection of surveillance data and the sharing of it between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies is growing rapidly – and is subject to less oversight and regulation than your average taco truck.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Progressive communities like Berkeley can lead the way in determining what is and isn’t okay in their towns. After local residents rebelled in Santa Clara County at the planned purchase of a stingray device by their sheriff, and neighboring Oakland rose up to stop a Domain Awareness Center spying network, Californians began to implement transparency and accountability laws.

In the past 16 months, Santa Clara County has passed a comprehensive surveillance transparency and oversight ordinance, Oakland has created the most robust use policy for stingray devices in the nation, and statewide surveillance transparency reform (SB-21) came within two votes of Governor Brown’s signature, passing through six state policy committees and the entire California State Senate.

The city of Berkeley came out strongly in favor of SB-21 and implementing surveillance transparency in every city and county throughout California. The members of the current Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to endorse statewide passage in May of 2017.

Almost a year earlier, in July of 2016, the Berkeley City Council asked the Police Review Commission and Peace and Justice Commission to develop a surveillance transparency ordinance for Berkeley but customized for the city’s specific needs.

For a year and a half, the city has worked on this in consultation with regional privacy experts, culminating in the unanimous approval by all the members of both citizen commissions of the Surveillance Equipment Use and Community Safety Ordinance. It comes before the City Council on December 5 for a first reading.

The Surveillance Equipment Use and Community Safety Ordinance has a simple premise. The acquisition and use of surveillance and spying equipment and technology need to be transparent to the city’s residents and overseen by the elected governing board of the city. Existing equipment and new types that may be acquired in the future will be subject to use policies that define acceptable uses and examine privacy and civil rights impacts on the front end. Actual use is reviewed on the back end to bring to light potential problems, before abuse happens and litigation ensues, and to assess the cost to benefit ratio – i.e. is the equipment doing what we intended, are we getting our money’s worth, and is there value to public safety and the residents of Berkeley in continuing to use it?

Secret surveillance breeds paranoia in the community and invites waste and misuse. As with all of government, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Berkeley’s progressive City Council knows this. In June, it voted, again unanimously, to require that the passage of a surveillance transparency ordinance be concurrent with Berkeley’s police department’s acquisition of body cameras.

After three unanimous council votes of approval in concept, two unanimous citizens commission votes, and a yearlong dedicated subcommittee, it’s time to act and not to delay.

Berkeley, what are you waiting for?

Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance, a Northern California democratic communications advocate and a member of Oakland Privacy, a regional citizens group advocating for privacy rights. She served on the Berkeley Police Review Commission subcommittee that drafted the proposed community safety legislation from August of 2016 to July of 2017.

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