Council passes surveillance technology ordinance

This afternoon the Council adopted an ordinance updating the city’s existing law restricting the acquisition of surveillance technologies.

This bill has been in the works since last fall, when it was discovered that SPD had been silently using a tool called Geofeedia to track social media posts of activist groups. While city law specified that surveillance technology needed to be approved, the definition of “surveillance technology” was restricted to hardware — so the Geofeedia software slipped through a very large loophole.

After several months of discussions, community input, and research, Council member Gonzalez introduced a bill in April that broadened the definition of surveillance technology. Since then, the bill has received significant reworking.

One of the big issues that the Council needed to wrestle with was whether to include surveillance data in the approval process as well. Their conclusion was that they eventually needed to do that, but the issues around data (and the sheer amount of data) are far larger than for surveillance technology, and that it will take them several months more to sort them out. Gonzalez has stated that to date, no city has attempted to regulate its use of surveillance data because the problem is simply too large and intractable. Gonzalez chose to split the effort into two parts: phase one, which passed today, updates the rules for surveillance technology; and phase two, which she hopes to deliver on next year, will focus on surveillance data.

Before passing the legislation today, the Council adopted a handful of amendments to fine-tune the legislation based on issues left unresolved at last week’s committee hearing on the bill. The amendments clarified the requirements for publishing the list of approved technologies, as well as those that the city determined did not need approval. It also established a protocol between the executive branch and the city for determining the priority and order for retroactive approval of technologies already in use by SPD and other departments.

After the vote, Council member Gonzalez issued a statement on the ordinance. Form her statement:

There are appropriate reasons to collect data like security  cameras at our water reservoirs, but there’s also opportunity for the City to go too far. Through this new law, Council will be a check and balance on surveillance technology acquisitions because the public deserves to know how such data will be managed and for what purpose it is being collected .

The bill passed unanimously and moves on to the Mayor for his signature.