Police surveillance tech disclosure considered by California legislature

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If a police department in California wants to use facial recognition software, or scrape social media platforms looking for evidence of criminal behavior, it would need to disclose the practice and, where practicable, get advance permission from its city council, if a bill working its way through the legislature makes it into law. Senate bill 1186, introduced by senator Jerry Hill (D – San Bruno), would require cities to decide on and publish policies for using “surveillance technology”, which it defines as…

Any electronic device or system with the capacity to monitor and collect audio, visual, locational, thermal, or similar information on any individual or group. This includes, but is not limited to, drones with cameras or monitoring capabilities, automated license plate recognition systems, closed-circuit cameras/televisions, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) trackers, global positioning system (GPS) technology, software designed to monitor social media services or forecast criminal activity or criminality, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, body-worn cameras, biometric identification hardware or software, and facial recognition hardware or software.

Any type of use would have to get blanket approval in advance, although after that it wouldn’t have to be reviewed on a case by case basis. If something unforeseen comes up, involving “danger of death or serious physical injury”, the cops could do whatever they need to do, but would have to disclose it later.

The bill had two hearings, in front of the California senate’s public safety and judiciary committees, where it was approved and sent on to the appropriations committee, with undisclosed amendments pending. Predictably, lawyers are in favor of it and police organisations are opposed. According to the public safety committee’s analysis, there have been 12 past attempts at similar legislation in recent years. Two, also carried by Hill, involving automatic license plate readers and mobile phone intercepts are now law. Most of the rest died in the legislature, although three made it to governor Jerry Brown’s desk and were vetoed. Given the sweeping scope of the current bill, a similar fate seems likely.