Monday, July 24, 2017
[San Mateo County] Balancing privacy with protection
Civil grand jury asks cops to disclose surveillance policies
As many Bay Area law enforcement agencies grow eager to adopt technological advancements to help fight crime, the debate over how surveillance systems could impede privacy rights continues to stir.
The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury investigated local agencies’ techniques and policies before releasing a report this week titled “A Delicate Balance: Privacy vs. Protection.” In it, the grand jury suggests most agencies are not doing an adequate job of informing the public as to how or whether they’re being watched and recommends cities and the county adopt new policies to promote transparency.
“Surveillance tools are everywhere: Video cameras are in stores, public buildings, even at a neighbor’s front door. Advances in surveillance technology have assisted law enforcement in investigating mass shootings, tracking terrorists and finding lost children,” the grand jury wrote in its report. “As valued as these new surveillance tools are to law enforcement, privacy experts say that innocent people may be targeted.”
The 2016-17 report comes just as numerous law enforcement agencies are working to equip their officers with body-worn cameras — which was recommended by the grand jury a year earlier. Now, it seeks to promote public awareness about how potentially sensitive information is gathered, stored and who has access.
Currently, 14 police departments and the Sheriff’s Office have purchased or plan to implement body-worn cameras. However, only Menlo Park has a statement related to the use of this equipment available online. Cities such as Atherton, Belmont, Foster City, Hillsborough and Menlo Park have had the equipment for several years. South San Francisco is just turning their cameras on; while San Mateo and Burlingame recently approved purchasing them. The Sheriff’s Office, Brisbane, Colma, Pacifica, Redwood City, San Bruno and East Palo Alto are expected to implement programs in the coming months.
The grand jury also recommends the various city councils and county Board of Supervisors adopt new requirements that include seeking public input before adopting new technologies, making their use policies readily available online, and increase accountability by posting periodic reports about the effectiveness of various surveillance tools.
The report outlines a wide variety of high-tech investigative equipment on the market such as cellphone interceptors. However, San Mateo County agencies are primarily using body-worn cameras, automated license plate readers or LPRs, and the Sheriff’s Office’s ShotSpotter that detects the location of gunfire.
The report highlights potential shifts in statewide regulations. Pending legislation by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, seeks to build off another law he authored by requiring cities and counties to host public meetings and craft a Surveillance Use Policy. The goal is to balance public safety with civil liberties while holding law enforcement agencies accountable to properly handling sensitive data. The bill also aims to promote transparency by having clearly outlined policies that must be approved by a governing body with public input, not just the law enforcement agency using the equipment. The San Mateo lawmaker’s bill is currently pending in the Assembly.
“This is just the beginning of the technology and the evolution of surveillance technology, we don’t know where it will end. But we know the citizens have to be part of the conversation because if we’re not, then those liberties and rights we have and hold dear today will be lost,” Hill said. “It’s certainly not intentional upon law enforcement’s part, that I believe. But they have a job to do and we expect them and push them to do the job, so they will use whatever they can to do that.”
License plate readers, new cameras
Hill’s effort is an expansion of prior legislation focusing on LPRs, which he chose to tackle after discovering some law enforcement agencies contracted with private companies that also sold the data. All San Mateo County agencies using LPRs store data with the Northern California Regional Crime Information Center, NCRIC, which was established by Congress.
Locally, LPRs are used by the Sheriff’s Office as well as police departments in San Mateo, Daly City, Hillsborough, Menlo Park, San Bruno and South San Francisco. San Carlos and Millbrae contract with the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services and Burlingame sometimes borrows LPRs.
The grand jury noted several of the departments do not have their LPR policies conspicuously available for the public to view online. The grand jury polled local law enforcement departments for its review and found most that are posting information on LPR polices have essentially used a vague, boilerplate statement from NCRIC. However, the grand jury did commend the city of San Mateo for an easier to understand description online, according to the report.
Representatives with Foster City and San Mateo police as well as the Sheriff’s Office said they were not ready to comment on the report as of Wednesday.
Foster City, which the grand jury report suggested did not involve the public when it first adopted body-worn technology, is slated to go before the City Council Monday to request new state-of-the-art cameras during a public hearing.
San Bruno police Lt. Troy Fry said the council has not yet approved purchasing cameras and the police department is still working on its body-worn camera policy. Also not able to comment on the grand jury report directly, Fry said there’s a balance.
“As a citizen in my community where I live, I understand the privacy concerns. But I would welcome the technology to help reduce crime and solve violent crimes,” Fry said. “It’s just a tool, and it can be used in good or bad ways. But as a citizen, I would welcome it as long as privacy rights are kept in line.”
Hill said he supports law enforcement being equipped with high-tech tools to fight crime and keep the public safe. His legislation, he argued, doesn’t detract from officers’ ability to secure the technology, instead it aims to provide opportunity for public comment and oversight for how sensitive data is stored.
The grand jury report notes neighboring entities have adopted or are considering explicit surveillance policies such as Santa Clara County, the city of Oakland and Bay Area Rapid Transit.
While the grand jury’s recommendations are not technically enforceable, responses are required by the local San Mateo County city and town councils, Board of Supervisors, Sheriff’s Office and Broadmoor Police Protection District.
Hill added he’s pleased the grand jury studied the issue and made recommendations for local jurisdictions to expand transparency.
“It’s a policy in place with the basic information. What does the technology do? How are you going to use it? Who has access to the information and how long will you be keeping the information?” Hill said. “Basic questions that are important.”
July 13, 2017
The Daily Journal
By Samantha Weigel