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US cities promise to crack down on police surveillance tech

Growing demand for greater oversight of how snoopware is obtained by cops

A handful of US cities are banding together in an effort to change the way police acquire and use surveillance technology.

The cities in the group – including New York, Washington DC, Seattle, and Milwaukee – say they will introduce bills to place additional reporting and approval requirements for the surveillance tools their police forces use.

Among the plans each city will look to implement is the requirement that the city council hear and sign off on the use of any new surveillance technologies. Additionally, the rules ask that both the civil rights and financial implications of new technologies be considered by the city before being purchased by police.

The effort, which is also backed by civil rights groups such as the ACLU, NAACP and Center for Democracy and Technology, seeks to place local government oversight on the ways police investigate crimes and the tools they use to do it.

Some of those police tools, the most notable being Stingray phone surveillance equipment and aerial cameras, have drawn criticism from rights groups, who claim that the tools are being abused by police for excessive surveillance of the public in general – and minority communities in particular.

"We need to maximize the active engagement and influence our local communities have over surveillance technology decision-making," said NAACP Washington bureau director Hilary Shelton.

"This first wave of legislative efforts being taken today across the country is a critical first step to moving local surveillance out of the shadows, ensuring transparency and accountability, and protecting the civil rights of all Americans."

Other cities participating include Richmond, Virginia, Palo Alto, California, Pensacola, Florida, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

The groups hope that with the new laws, the process of obtaining surveillance technology will become more transparent and local communities will get a better idea as to how they are being monitored by the police.

The rules could also, however, potentially cause legal problems for departments due to the strict secrecy requirements that the makers of the surveillance tools place on customers. ®

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