Surveillance: Spokane Acts to Protect Privacy and Provide Transparency

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On Monday, the Spokane City Council took action to protect the privacy rights of Spokane residents and increase transparency about government surveillance. The Council passed an ordinance that will require Council approval for the acquisition and use of some new surveillance equipment, such as drones and camera networks. The ordinance, which was introduced by Council President Ben Stuckart, requires that city departments develop use guidelines to govern how the new equipment may be used and how the data collected will be stored and accessed.

The ordinance also requires approval for use of third-party surveillance equipment by the city or on behalf of the city. In other words, city departments cannot simply get around the approval process by outsourcing their surveillance needs to someone else. This is a critical provision that makes the Spokane ordinance stronger than a similar ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council in the spring.

We were pleased to see Stuckart and the Spokane City Council taking on this issue because it is important to have transparency and public input into any decision to acquire new surveillance equipment. Requiring council approval and use protocols for new surveillance equipment helps to identify and address civil liberties concerns in advance. It also promotes transparency by allowing the public to comment on proposed uses and provide helpful feedback.

Throughout the review period, we supported the overall intent and purpose of the ordinance, but did suggest some revisions that could have made the ordinance stronger. Some of our adjustments made their way into the final bill while others did not. But the final legislation does provide for increased oversight of government surveillance, and that is a big win for Spokane and for privacy.

One shortfall of the ordinance is that it exempts a number of surveillance devices regularly used by law enforcement, such as red light cameras, license plate readers and cameras attached to public buildings. The excluded devices are capable of collecting highly personal information about law-abiding citizens and therefore should have clear use guidelines created and approved prior to their use. Thankfully, though, the Council decided to take a pass on a broader proposed amendment that would have exempted just about all law enforcement surveillance equipment – which would have left the ordinance without any real impact.

The ordinance is a good first step towards protecting our privacy. We hope that more communities throughout Washington will consider passing similar oversight mechanisms with even stronger provisions and protections.