Oakland’s Progressive Fight to Protect Residents from Government Surveillance

The City of Oakland, California, has once again raised the bar on community control of police surveillance. Last week, Oakland’s City Council voted unanimously to strengthen the city’s already groundbreaking Surveillance and Community Safety Ordinance. The latest amendment, which immediately went into effect, adds prohibitions on Oakland’s Police Department using predictive policing technologywhich has been shown to amplify existing bias in policing—as well as a range of privacy-invasive biometric surveillance technologies, to the city’s existing ban on government use of face recognition.

Oakland is now (as far as we know) the first city to ban government use of voice recognition technology. This is an important step, given the growing proliferation of this invasive form of surveillance, at home and abroad. Oakland also may be the first city to ban government use of any technology that can identify a person based on “physiological, biological, or behavioral characteristics ascertained from a distance.” This would include recognition of a person’s distinctive gait or manner of walking.

Last June, the California city of Santa Cruz became the first U.S. city to ban its police department from using predictive policing technology. Just a few weeks ago, New Orleans, Louisiana, also prohibited the technology, as well as certain forms of biometric surveillance. With last week’s amendments, Oakland became the largest city to ban predictive policing.

Oakland is also the first city to incorporate these prohibitions into a more comprehensive Community Control of Police Surveillance (CCOPS) framework. Its ordinance not only prohibits these particularly pernicious forms of surveillance, but also ensures that police cannot obtain any other forms of surveillance technology absent permission from the city council following input from residents. This guarantees transparency, accountability, and community engagement before any privacy-invasive surveillance technology can be adopted by local government agencies.

Last week marks the second significant update to Oakland’s CCOPS ordinance since it went into effect in 2018. One year later, the law was amended to ban government use of face recognition. At the time, Oakland was one of only three cities to ban the technology. Neighboring San Francisco was the first, having included its ban in its own CCOPS ordinance. Since then, over a dozen U.S. cities have followed suit. Now federal legislation seeks to bar federal agencies from using the technology. The bill is sponsored by Senators Markey and Merkley and Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Pramila Jayapal, Rashida Tlaib, and Yvette Clarke.

The recent amendments to Oakland’s surveillance ordinance were sponsored by the city’s Privacy Advisory Commission, which is tasked with developing and advising on citywide privacy concerns. In a blog published by Secure Justice—a Bay Area non-profit lead by the Commission’s chair, Brian Hofer—Sameena Usman, of the San Francisco office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) explained: “Not only are these methods intrusive and don’t work, they also have a disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities – leading to over-policing.” EFF joined 16 other groups in supporting the new law.

EFF applauds the Commission and Oakland’s City Council for taking this groundbreaking step advancing public safety and protecting civil liberties. Predictive policing and biometric surveillance technologies have a harmfully disparate impact against people of color, immigrants, and other vulnerable populations, as well as a chilling effect on our fundamental First Amendment freedoms.  

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