California county becomes first to restrict surveillance technology

California county becomes first to restrict surveillance technology
© Thinkstock

The California county of Santa Clara, which is home to much of Silicon Valley, will now require law enforcement to seek county board and district attorney approval before purchasing new surveillance technologies. 

In a unanimous vote, the county board of supervisors approved the new budget framework. The new ordinance will cover a host of equipment that has become more common among police in recent years, including license plate scanners, products that spoof cellphone towers and even closed-circuit cameras.

ADVERTISEMENT

For years, civil liberties groups have complained about law enforcement use of these technologies, saying they are unnecessarily invasiv and are often bulk surveillance techniques with too little judicial or governmental oversight.

Law enforcement in Santa Clara will also now be required to publish annual surveillance reports detailing usage, how successful different technologies have been, complaints and internal audits not subject to privilege.  

“Simply put,” said County Supervisor Joe Simitian in a press release, “we’ll be asking these important civil liberties questions before, rather than after, we acquire some new technology. We’ll have policies in place before we acquire some new technology. And we’ll be holding ourselves accountable on a regular basis.”

Santa Clara is believed to be the first county to impose such a rule, although Seattle passed a similar ordinance on the city level. 

Sheriff Laurie Smith acknowledged the privacy concerns about the technology but said she is worried that the new oversight would hinder police work, according to the Mercury News.

"It's very broad and onerous, and I hope it doesn't hurt our ability to get, utilize and share information with other law enforcement agencies,” she said.

Violating the ordinance will be considered a misdemeanor.