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Tonight: Speak for Cambridge surveillance oversight

We have been working with Restore the 4th and the ACLU to get the City of Cambridge to adopt an ordinance placing city council and citizen oversight over the introduction of surveillance cameras in Cambridge.  The process has taken awhile and was in the hands of the city manager to review the proposed ordinance.

That is done now. His proposals for improving transparency regarding current policies and laws governing uses of surveillance technology, and how the data is used and shared, are positive and seem worthy of support.

However, the city manager’s proposal resists a key point of the ordinance to go beyond the current law and implement a pro-active, mandatory oversight regime. More broadly, the hindrance this ordinance might provide to city departments casually adopting new surveillance technologies without democratic review is, of course, a key feature.

Tonight the city council will review the city manager’s document. As a resident of Cambridge, we hope you will come out tonight and testify. The council meeting starts at 5:30pm and will be at City Hall, 2nd Floor Sullivan Chamber, 795 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139. You can review the agenda.

Here are a few talking points you may want to use:

  • The City Manager’s report creates a straw man and then rejects it. In fact, the oversight the ordinance requires wouldn’t be a substantial burden on city agencies. The council could approve requests for surveillance tech that are written broadly enough that agencies don’t have to go back to the council every time they need to replace or install a new camera, for example. That’s up to the council, but the ordinance gives enough leeway to allow that kind of interpretation.
  • The central purpose of the ordinance is to require democratic approval of surveillance purchases. Any proposal that guts this requirement effectively guts the ordinance.
  • The ordinance should not be triggered for mere replacement of existing technologies. Replacing a camera is one thing. Replacing a camera with one that uses facial recognition software is another.
  • The ordinance must require reports on how surveillance technologies are being used at regular intervals to the Council and Mayor, without the Council having to ask (and ask, and ask, and ask) for them.
  • Without noncompliance being a misdemeanor, law enforcement will have every incentive to ignore the ordinance.
  • Now more than ever, Cambridge should chart a course towards freedom and democracy. The ordinance in its original form would do that. The suggestions from the City Manager make it seem like he will forward a proposal that falls short.


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