Berkeley’s City Council Unanimously Approves Groundbreaking Surveillance Ordinance


After twenty months of review by multiple citizen commissions, privacy advocates, city staff, and elected officials, on March 13, 2018, the Berkeley City Council unanimously approved a powerful new law aimed at protecting privacy rights.

Based on a model created by the ACLU, the ordinance requires that all surveillance technology proposals first undergo a public discussion to determine the potential benefits, costs, and concerns of such an acquisition and its use in the community, and that the benefits outweigh the costs and concerns. Accountability and ongoing oversight are maintained with annual reporting requirements that will provide the community with information about how the equipment is being used.

With the historic vote, Berkeley became the first city in the nation to enact this type of ordinance. The County of Santa Clara unanimously passed a similar ordinance in 2016, becoming the first entity in the nation to take such an approach. The city of Davis is expected to enact a similar version on March 20.

“We applaud the City of Berkeley for being proactive in addressing the concerns around invasive surveillance equipment, and also the fear that the Trump administration may use local law enforcement data for illegitimate purposes, such as the targeting of non-criminal immigrants,” said Brian Hofer, a member of Oakland Privacy, which advocated for the ordinance along with a sizable coalition of like-minded community groups.

“Law enforcement shouldn’t be able to acquire surveillance technology in secret, yet it happens every day. Our local elected leaders must be empowered to intervene,” said Tessa D’Arcangelew, of the ACLU of Northern California. “The people of Berkeley have the right to reject dangerous surveillance technologies before law enforcement agencies can acquire them.” In the last month, Alameda and Culver City have rejected proposals from Vigilant, a maker of automated license plate readers, due to concerns over Vigilant’s contract to provide database access to ICE.

“Given the President’s rhetoric of increased surveillance of mosques, the Muslim community is particularly concerned with the unfettered use of surveillance technology and how it’s being shared,” said Sameena Usman, with the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ San Francisco Bay Area Office (CAIR-SFBA). “A strong use policy would ensure that our civil liberties and privacy will be protected.”

“Any technology tool can be used in a variety of ways, some appropriate and some that create civil rights problems”, says Media Alliance Executive Director Tracy Rosenberg. “The surveillance transparency framework Berkeley just put into place requires us to articulate where those lines are according to local standards and then make sure we keep to those agreements”.

Similar ordinances such as Berkeley’s are expected to pass in the near future in Davis, Oakland, and BART. Alameda County and Palo Alto are also considering their own versions of the ordinance.