Seattle Adopts Nation’s Strongest Regulations for Surveillance Technology

News Release: 
Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Mayor Murray signed into law last week a measure that will help bring transparency and accountability to the City’s acquisition of surveillance technology. The Seattle Surveillance Ordinance (CB 118930) aims to ensure that the public has the opportunity to weigh the costs and benefits of new surveillance technology – including the impact on civil liberties – before the City obtains it. 
 
The new law is the strongest measure adopted by an American city to regulate the acquisition of surveillance technology. It covers acquisition of all surveillance technologies, including equipment, hardware, and software. It gives agencies flexibility to use technologies in emergencies where there is a danger of death or serious bodily harm, but ensures that flexibility is not abused to acquire surveillance technologies without oversight.
 
“This is a promising first step that protects both the safety and civil liberties of Seattle’s communities, including its most vulnerable,” said Shankar Narayan, ACLU of Washington Technology and Liberty Director.  “In particular, it recognizes that government agencies should consider the impact of a given surveillance technology on civil liberties and public trust, as well as its dollar cost and public safety or other benefits.”
 
The law tackles the problem that city agencies, including the Seattle Police Department, have been acquiring increasingly powerful surveillance technologies without public input or oversight, despite previous passage of an ordinance intended to accomplish public transparency around surveillance. Surveillance technologies can paint a clear picture of a person's habits, movements, and political and religious activities, and can create fear among vulnerable communities. Yet there has been little or no public awareness or clear usage guidelines when technologies such as drones, Shotspotter, social media monitoring systems, and others were adopted.
 
The Surveillance Ordinance addresses these concerns by providing for:
  • A more robust definition of surveillance technology to ensure that the ordinance brings transparency and accountability to technologies of greatest concern;
  • community meetings prior to City Council approval, and Council ability to direct additional outreach;
  • robust, publicly posted Surveillance Impact Reports;  a publicly posted equity impact assessment and a publicly posted surveillance usage review;
  • an inventory of existing surveillance technologies and process for Council approval at one per month; creation of a work group to determine the form of a new surveillance advisory board;
  • a commitment to review and address via separate ordinance all surveillance data flowing into and out of the City;
  • and a cause of action so that the public can enforce the law in court if need be.
 
The ACLU stressed that the City Council must now take responsibility for ensuring law’s effectiveness by exercising its oversight role around the ordinance’s implementation. “Instead of the ’trust the experts’ approach that has prevailed in the past, the Council should ask tough questions about the purpose of technologies, their civil liberties impact, and how they will be deployed, and set the rules accordingly,” said the ACLU’s Shankar Narayan. “Council members must hold agencies accountable, demand they deeply engage community members most impacted by surveillance technologies, and create transparent rules.
 
Looking ahead, Narayan also said that the Council must also enact another ordinance to ensure that the City’s acquisition and sharing of surveillance data is regulated in a future ordinance. The acquisition and sharing of data was not included in the newly enacted law at the insistence of the Seattle Police Department. But without controls, the sharing of data could render communities such as immigrants and refugees vulnerable to federal enforcement – a matter of special concern with the Trump administration in power.