Technology is warping our world as governments are deploying increasingly invasive surveillance, often without public knowledge or oversight. Government agencies are monitoring social media with artificial intelligence-based tools to assign “threat scores” to individuals, tracking people’s locations using cell site simulators and surveilling immigrants, tenants, travelers and many other groups using racially-biased facial recognition technology. The integration of powerful and unaccountable AI-based surveillance tools creates a web of government control that is virtually impossible to escape.
Use of such surveillance tools raises many civil liberties concerns, particularly for vulnerable communities. Historically, these people have always borne the brunt of surveillance in the hands of government. These technologies have been disproportionately used against people of color, from Japanese Americans to Black civil rights leaders to Muslims after 9/11 to protest groups such as Black Lives Matter. While government surveillance should concern everyone, surveillance impacts these vulnerable populations and others, like the undocumented and unhoused, hardest. People experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to over-surveillance because they rely heavily on the public spaces where most government surveillance takes place.
Here in Seattle, we have an opportunity to fight unaccountable government surveillance, and ensure community members know and can voice concern over if and how agencies are allowed to use invasive surveillance technologies. In our city, we are deep into the process of implementing the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance, the strongest surveillance law in the country, requiring community oversight for government use of surveillance technologies, and one that explicitly builds in community perspectives.
The implementation process has proven to be extremely valuable. Throughout the process, city agencies have unearthed information about concerning technologies that were previously unknown to the public, such as Acyclica, a technology that can uniquely track people’s locations. A Community Surveillance Working Group primarily comprised of representatives from impacted communities has provided recommendations on these surveillance technologies to the Seattle City Council. And, importantly, public outreach, hearings and discussions have engaged a larger group of the public and affected communities in the surveillance regulation conversation.
However, the implementation process has not been completely smooth sailing. Though the Ordinance’s goal is to create community-centric, transparent and enforceable rules directing how agencies can and cannot use surveillance technologies, some Seattle leaders see it as an opportunity simply to validate existing agency practices. The City Council has not yet turned any of the Working Group’s recommendations for regulation into clear and enforceable policies. Despite the Working Group offering its assistance to create a format for such policies and procedures, the adoption of directive policies has stalled.
Of additional concern are the inaccuracies in reporting agency practices. Thus far, the city has produced 14 Surveillance Impact Reports (SIRs) providing detailed information on 14 out of 29 surveillance technologies used by Seattle agencies. Despite unveiling valuable information, many of the SIRs contain vague, incomplete, contradictory or outdated information, which makes it challenging for the public to fully decipher and give feedback on the technologies in use.
Furthermore, the City Council has not provided a manageable timeline for the public to review and comment on the 29 technologies up for review. We are waiting to see the SIRs for the remaining 15 technologies, with increasing concern about the infeasibility of the timeline. For example, the proposed public comment period for 10 different technologies is from November to December 2019, which gives the public less than one month to review these technologies, some of which are the most concerning technologies in the entire group. Clearly, the current timeline does not allow for the meaningful community engagement that is vital to successfully implement the Ordinance.
Community organizations focused on driving equity and social change have invested heavily in the passage and implementation of the Seattle Surveillance Ordinance because the law gives Seattle leaders an opportunity to put strong rules around powerful technologies and remedy the disproportionate impacts of surveillance. Our city councilmembers have the opportunity to create meaningful, community-centric change, and we must hold them accountable. Vulnerable people’s civil liberties are dependent on our lawmakers’ choices.
Join us at upcoming public committee meetings to tell our lawmakers that we need strong and enforceable policies around surveillance technologies.
Jennifer Lee is the ACLU Washington Technology and Liberty Project Advocate; Shankar Narayan is the organization’s Technology and Liberty Project Director.
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