Cutting-edge Surveillance Ordinance Approved for Santa Clara County

June 7, 2016


SAN JOSE – The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors today approved (5-0) a wide ranging regulatory framework governing the acquisition and use of surveillance technology by County officials – including the Sheriff and District Attorney. The measure, proposed by County Supervisor Joe Simitian, had been in the works for more than a year and a half.

Under the new law, officials who want to purchase and use surveillance technology in Santa Clara County will have to:

  • Provide analysis of the privacy and due process implications of the technology they wish to acquire,
  • Submit for approval a set of “use policies” governing the use of the technology, before the technology is acquired or used; and,
  • Report back annually on the use of the technology, in order to provide some measure of accountability.

Simitian noted, “for years and years we’ve made budget allocations without asking the most basic of questions: What information are we collecting? About whom? Why? How long will we have the information? Who’ll have access? How will we know if there’s misuse or abuse? I think we ought to know those answers before we spend millions of dollars in public funds.”

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

The ordinance also provides that the Board of Supervisors, “…shall assess whether the benefits to the impacted County departments and the community of the surveillance technology outweigh the costs – including both the financial costs and reasonable concerns about the impact on and safeguards for privacy, civil liberties and civil rights.”

“I firmly believe we can both protect the public, and respect the public’s privacy and due process rights,” Simitian said. “In fact, I believe we’re obligated to do both.”

The proposed ordinance came to the Board with the support of more than two dozen community groups and civil liberties organizations, the County’s Public Defender, local press, and the County’s two-member Finance and Government Operations Committee.

The measure did meet with some resistance, from both the Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office – the Sheriff’s Office in particular.

The new measure is noteworthy, in part, because it both addresses specific existing technologies (like surveillance cameras, automated license plate readers, and cell-site simulators), but also attempts to be “future-proof,” by describing the kinds of surveillance covered.

In his presentation to the Board, Simitian made a point of noting that the measure does not prohibit any specific technology, “but simply provides a process to make sure we ask and answer the right questions at the right time; so we can make the right choices, and then ensure some accountability. Right now, we don’t know what we don’t know. Decisions are being made and public funds are being spent without the kind of transparency, oversight, and accountability the public deserves.”

Simitian also made the case that “having a good law on the books helps build support for the use of surveillance technology when it’s appropriate. Understandably, the public will continue to resist the use of emerging surveillance technologies until and unless we respond to legitimate concerns about privacy and civil liberties.”

Indeed, the ordinance specifically noted that surveillance technology can be “…a valuable tool to bolster community safety and aid in the investigation and prosecution of crimes.”

Simitian also made a point of the fact that the measure provides law enforcement with exceptions in the case of “exigent circumstances,” that is in cases of “…an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury…”.

"Thoughtful and inclusive decisions about surveillance technology are essential to protecting the rights of community members and the responsible management of public resources,” said the ACLU of Northern California in a letter of support cosigned by 29 community groups and civil liberties organizations. “The Surveillance Ordinance enables the Board of Supervisors to ensure that smart decisions about surveillance technology are made in Santa Clara County.”

A violation of the new ordinance will be a misdemeanor.

“The technology is not, per se, the issue,” said Simitian. “It’s the wisdom with which we use it. I’m hoping we’ll make wiser, more fully informed decisions going forward, and that the public will now have a voice in those discussions.”



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