Santa Clara Ordinance Puts Government Surveillance in Check

Government officials in Santa Clara County will have to think twice before acquiring or employing electronic surveillance equipment under a new law approved by the Board of Supervisors Wednesday.

The Surveillance Technology and Community Safety Ordinance is being hailed as first-of-its-kind legislation that ensures transparency, accountability and proper oversight for all decisions involving electronic government surveillance. Under the new ordinance, agencies must clear a series of hurdles before purchasing or using high-tech spying equipment, such as cell phone trackers, license plate readers or drones. These include a comprehensive analysis of relevant privacy implications; drafting policy outlines that govern the use of the equipment; issuing a public notice and Impact Report before allowing time for public input; and providing annual reports on the nature and frequency of use. They must also get Board approval for any purchases.

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

The new law comes on the heels of several controversial moves involving surveillance equipment by law enforcement agencies in Santa Clara County. Last year, for instance, the Sheriff’s Department sought to procure the controversial cell phone tracking device known as “Stingray,” but was eventually shot down over major privacy concerns. The San Jose Police Department similarly came under criticism for purchasing a drone without informing the public. And last summer, the city even considered placing license plate readers on trash trucks to combat auto theft.

Privacy advocates hope Santa Clara’s law could eventually serve as a model for the entire nation. But the county’s District Attorney and law enforcement agencies are less enthusiastic.

"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," Sheriff Laurie Smith told the board. "I understand the privacy concerns but most of what we do is criminal investigation, and we need the best tools to do the job."

Read more about Santa Clara County’s new surveillance ordinance here.

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