Surveillance privacy bill advances on heels of spy-plane resolution

The Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) — located in the headquarters of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department at 1915 Olive St. — is the hub for the city’s surveillance. 

Two months before the RTCC opened in May 2015, the mayor’s office drafted a policy to establish who has access to the surveillance information and how it’s stored, according to the St. Louis American’s 2019 investigation. However, ACLU representatives raised concerns about the policy and asked for a meeting.

“The city said right up front at the beginning of those meetings that the policies they put together were just their first attempt,” said John Chasnoff, said privacy advocate John Chasnoff, who worked for the ACLU at the time and wrote a 2014 report, “Caught in the Web of Mass Surveillance.” “They realized that they were essentially inadequate and needed to be bolstered and thought through more carefully.”

For the following 10 months, the ACLU worked with representatives from the police department, the mayor’s office and other departments on creating a policy that strengthened privacy protections. Chasnoff said they were “within inches” of finalizing a policy. 

“At that point, it just evaporated into a black hole,” he said.

Now five years later, the city is still operating under that original “inadequate” draft of a privacy policy. Several aldermen — including now Board of Aldermen Clerk Terry Kennedy and Alderman John Collins-Muhammad (D-Ward 21) — repeatedly tried to pass bills to remedy the situation. But the bills never advanced.

On July 13, that changed. The aldermanic Public Safety Committee passed the Surveillance Technology Bill (Board Bill 95) with 4 yes votes and 1 present. This time, the bill was sponsored by Alderwoman Annie Rice (D-Ward 8), but the language was similar to previous bills. 

“What we’re asking is for there to be, in the City of St. Louis, civilian oversight of any of our surveillance technology that is out there right now and that could be coming in the future,” Rice said during the July 13 meeting. 

A number of U.S. cities have already done this, she said, where they created a citizen advisory committee and a review process to better understand the city’s surveillance technologies and what they’re being used for. This would both address the privacy and fiscal concerns around surveillance technologies, she said.  

“What are we spending vast amounts of money on?” Rice said. “And is it working to any number of outcomes that we set in front of it? Are we disproportionately impacting, yet again, black and brown people in the City of St. Louis because of where our surveillance technology is placed and how it’s being used.”

Right before Kennedy stepped down from his long-held position as chairman of the Public Safety Committee, he was able to pass a resolution in January 2019 that required the city’s chief technology officer to conduct a study on its surveillance technology. That report was released to aldermen this spring. 

The audit states that in the last three years, the Board of Public Service has spent about $4 million on the deployment of cameras and license plate readers (LPRs) using ward capital funds and other funding sources some of which include federal and private funding sources. However, Rice said the other findings about surveillance were vague, and Board Bill 95 would help fill in the gaps.

“This is going to help you watch our dollar and cents,” testified Sara Baker, legislative and policy director of the ACLU Missouri. “We should know if the surveillance technology is effective before we put more of the city’s budget into it.”

Alicia Hernández, community organizer for the ACLU of Missouri, told aldermen that the bill would not only address cameras, but also the use of stingrays tracking devices and drones. 

“As a resident of St. Louis and of the United States, you have the right to zones of privacy that should not be penetrated by government intrusion,” Hernández said. “Unfortunately, since the launch of the Real Time Crime Center, St. Louis’ embrace of surveillance technologies has felt more like a runaway train. There is no existing oversight, and no agreed upon framework for uses of surveillance  technologies, which are permissible and which are not. Board Bill 95 would change that.”

The bill makes the city’s Civil Rights Enforcement Agency, which is currently directed by Charles Bryson, in charge of oversight. Bryson would also be in charge of assembling an advisory committee of city residents and city employees. 

 

Persistent Surveillance

 

One likely reason the bill has gotten further than in past years is because Alderman Tom Oldenburg (D-Ward 16) recently led the passage of a resolution that encourages the mayor to sign a contract with Persistent Surveillance, a company which would operate aerial surveillance, or “spy planes,” over the city. Supporters say this initiative could help address unsolved murders. However, the ACLU and others have vehemently opposed such a contract. 

“Alderman Tom Oldenburg has proposed the uncapped expansion of aerial surveillance and the further militarization of our police, and another set is proposing citizen overview of surveillance technology,” wrote Jamala Rogers in a recent American column. “If these last few weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the people, not the government, shape the future. I urge this city to shape a future that keeps pace with human development and places a hard stop on technological tyranny.”  

Rice said that if the bill passes before the mayor’s office were to enter into a contract with the company, then they would have to present a “surveillance technology use plan” as part of the contracting process. The bill will likely be perfected at the Board of Aldermen’s meeting on Friday, July 17. It would still need one more vote of approval to pass.

“Board Bill 95 does not take any tools out of the toolbox,” Baker said. “If this community wants to use surveillance technology, it absolutely can. All this is doing is putting in some common sense safeguards and regulations so going forward it’s done in an equitable way.”

 

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