Is Local Government Spying on You? ACLU Offers Sobering Report


In the wake of the MRAP controversy in Davis, a report from the ACLU has found that California local governments have spent more than $60 million on spying technology. In the wake of that report, the ACLU is calling for the state’s large municipalities to enact ordinances requiring public evaluation before police agencies acquire and utilize new high-tech equipment.

Last week, the ACLU released its report that walks communities through the questions that need to be asked and answered when any surveillance technology is being considered. The centerpiece of the report is a model Surveillance & Community Safety Ordinance for communities to adopt that will provide necessary community participation, transparency, accountability and oversight.

“Local law enforcement has been taking advantage of millions of federal surveillance dollars streaming into California to sidestep the normal oversight process of city councils and boards of supervisors and keep the public in the dark about important community decisions,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the ACLU of California. “After revelations of mass surveillance by the NSA, the public isn’t buying the ‘just trust us’ approach anymore. The public expects to know why surveillance is being considered, how it is going to be used and what safeguards are in place to guard against misuse before any decisions are made.”

The ACLU’s research helped reveal this past August that the San Jose Police Department had secretly obtained a drone with federal funding, with no public debate and no policy safeguards in place. After protests from community members, the police department apologized and has grounded the drone and initiated a public outreach process.

“Law enforcement agencies shouldn’t make decisions about whether or not to use surveillance technologies in secret. The public has a right to know how they’re being policed,” said Peter Bibring, police practices director for the ACLU of California. “High-tech surveillance tools can too easily be abused when the public is kept in the dark, and police transparency is key to maintaining the public’s trust.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus have also both joined with the ACLU to endorse the need for ordinances like the one the ACLU is proposing. Unchecked surveillance often has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and religious minorities.

“Communities are increasingly concerned about making sure that time, energy and resources are not spent on expensive, ineffective and overly intrusive surveillance systems that create more problems than they solve,” Avalos said. “That’s why public transparency and engagement are key to any decision about whether to use surveillance technology. If surveillance technology is to be used, clear rules must be in place to ensure transparency, oversight and accountability.”

According to the ACLU’s research, only five of the 90 communities studied held a public debate each time they rolled out a new surveillance technology. And less than five percent of the communities the ACLU studied have a publicly-available use policy for every surveillance technology that they use.

The Davis City Council, in dealing with the MRAP, created policy for acquisitions under the federal 1033 Program.

The council unanimously voted to implement the policy that specifies:

  1. The Police Chief is authorized to procure small tools and equipment including, but not limited to, items such as furniture, range supplies, uniform equipment and clothing, firearms, computers, printers, radios, electronics, binoculars, ballistic helmets and vests.
  2. City Manager authorization is required if the annual maintenance cost of any piece of or set of equipment is more than $10,000 or will have significant impact upon an internal service fund, or its acquisition will require a subsequent appropriation for maintenance.
  3. City Council authorization is required for the procurement of vehicles, drones, and aircraft.

That comes pretty close to meeting the recommended policy guidelines from the ACLU.


  • Informed Public Debate at Earliest Stage of Process: Public notice, distribution of information about the proposal and public debate prior to seeking funding or otherwise moving forward with surveillance technology proposals.
  • Determination that Benefits Outweigh Costs and Concerns: Local leaders, after facilitating an informed public debate, expressly consider costs (fiscal and civil liberties) and determine that surveillance technology is appropriate or not before moving forward.
  • Thorough Surveillance Use Policy: Legally enforceable Surveillance Use Policy with robust civil liberties, civil rights, and security safeguards approved by policymakers.
  • Ongoing Oversight & Accountability: Proper oversight of surveillance technology use and accountability through annual reporting, review by policymakers and enforcement mechanisms.

The ordinance text would expand the city’s own policy on number three to include surveillance technology.

The text reads: “The [Council/Board of Supervisors] finds that any decision to use surveillance technology must be judiciously balanced with the need to protect civil rights and civil liberties, including privacy and free expression, and the costs to [City/County]. The [Council/Board] finds that proper transparency, oversight and accountability are fundamental to minimizing the risks posed by surveillance technologies. The [Council/Board] finds it essential to have an informed public debate as early as possible about whether to adopt surveillance technology. The [Council/Board] finds it necessary that legally enforceable safeguards be in place to protect civil liberties and civil rights before any surveillance technology is deployed. The [Council/Board] finds that if surveillance technology is approved, there must be continued oversight and annual evaluation to ensure that safeguards are being followed and that the surveillance technology’s benefits outweigh its costs.”

Nicole Ozer has noted that, up and down the state, “basic transparency and accountability is the exception, not the rule.”

In their report, the ACLU released data from counties and cities throughout the state that shows the types and quantities of surveillance equipment used by police agencies. These include automatic license-plate readers, body-worn cameras, use of facial-recognition databases, video-surveillance networks, and the more controversial drones and cell tower mimicking devices that cast an electronic net for cellphones in a given area.

Yolo County, for the most part, came up clean with regard to most of these surveillance technologies, but given the flap over the MRAP, the Davis City Council could easily amend section three of their new policy to require council authorization for surveillance equipment.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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39 thoughts on “Is Local Government Spying on You? ACLU Offers Sobering Report”

  1. sisterhood

    A friend in southern Arizona positively spotted a drone over their property, probably border patrol. I can’t wait to read the posts from Northern CA folks who’ll justify spying on the Mexicans to keep “them” out of our country.

  2. Tia Will

    The public has a right to know how they’re being policed”

    This is the key principle for me. On another thread one commenter had made the observation that “Kaiser has the right to decide” with regard to purchases and policy. And this is true largely because as the employer and affected business Kaiser has oversight over its employees and the right to direct their efforts. Kaiser, or any employer, also has an obligation to protect the safety of those employees.

    I would maintain that this is equally true for the citizens of our city. Through our taxes, we provide for the individual compensation and equipment of the police department and thus are serving as the “employer”. This gives us both rights and obligations to those we employ. It gives us the responsibility to ensure that they have what is jointly determined to be the best equipment to do their jobs safely and the right to determined where we would have them focus their efforts. This is an impossible task if the citizens and  city leaders are not informed in advance of major plans for change. I believe that it is the “in advance” that is key here.

    1. Miwok

      I am kind of amazed you would advocate for corporations to make their own rules. Many of them have “rules” or “policies” I am told by naive employees they are “laws”. You are saying Kaiser nor any other place you work has the right to tell you and force you to comply with specious rules.

      But they do. Like my last experience with Kaiser, I was told a certain medical procedure was not “allowed” because we “don’t believe in it”. One doctor making the rules for all the others? One rule for all the patients? That is what I was told, more than once.

      What of they start recording your appointments “for your safety”? What happens to the video? Will an innocuous joke with a long time patient make their highlight reel at the Xmas party?

      If they could enforce their parking I would have more confidence up the chain with Kaiser. Sorry to digress away from drones, they already seem to have enough cameras, inside the buildings, anyway.

      1. Tia Will


        Wow…..I am not sure what I said that led you to such erroneous conclusions about my points. But from the degree of the discrepancy, I can only think I must have been very, very unclear. So I will try again.

        Nowhere did I state that corporationss should make up their own rules. I intended to state that within legal parameters companies can specify what duties they intend for their employees to take on and what they will provide for them to use. I further did not say one word about forcing any one to comply with “specious” rules, whatever you define those to be. However, Kaiser is well within its rights to enforce sensible rules, such as that I have to be appropriately trained and licensed with hospital privileges to work within their hospitals. Would you disagree ?

        I don’t know ( nor do I want to know) what doctor(s) you were seeing, but I can tell you that no one has ever told me how to practice or that I cannot prescribe or operate in a manner that the patient and I decide is appropriate. Now, there are times when I tell patient’s that I will not prescribe something they are demanding ( I just turned down a request for inappropriate narcotics today) but their is no “we” to not believe in any given accepted treatment. Of course,  I will not prescribe what I do not feel is in the patient’s best interest…..but there is no “doctor supervisor” telling me what I can and cannot prescribe with very rare exceptions for drugs with which I have no expertise such as chemotherapeutic agents which of course I should never be prescribing anyway.

        Finally, I am not sure what any of this had to do with my central point that employers can and should have some say in how their plans and desires are implemented by those they have hired.

  3. sisterhood

    “Jointly determined”.

    Agreed. This is the key.

    Don’t be alarmed, in the future, if one lives near a registered sex offender that law enforcement and [edit] vigilante groups will decide to place drones over your home if you live in the neighborhood of a registered sex offender, or other paroled felon or misdemeanor offender, all under the incorrect auspice that they are protecting you. They are trying to run the undesirables outa town.

    Perhaps they’ll spy on anyone who had a prior DUI, to ascertain they are backing out of their driveway in a safe fashion.

    1. Biddlin

      Having spent some time in cities where one is always on camera, I have come to accept the security benefits and ignore the invasion of privacy. In London and most metropolitan European cities, police frequently track criminals from the comfort of their work-stations, as pretty much the entire continent is on web cams. (New York City is nearly as saturated, just not as organised, yet.) I purchased a quadcopter, with video, to survey remote areas when I’m trekking, so as not to be eaten by wild hogs or surprise any militia members. It has saved someone’s bacon on a couple of occasions, literally. Handy gadget.


  4. South of Davis

    David wrote:

    > a report from the ACLU has found that California local governments

    > have spent more than $60 million on spying technology. 

    Remember they are not spending the money to “keep taxpayers safe” they are spending the money to “keep government employees (and their pay and benefits) safe”.

    UBER got a lot of press this week for threatening to “hiring opposition researchers to dig up defamatory information about journalists who criticized the company” while this has been going on in Politics for YEARS.

    If I was a blogger that was pointing out problems with the government I would assume that all my calls and e-mails were monitored (and would soon expect to see drones flying overhead).

    P.S. I know people in law enforcement who tell me that they track cell phones all the time (without a warrant) and I was surprised to hear NPR talking about this recently (a quick Google search found this article):

  5. theotherside


    A scenario in which drones are used to monitor registered sex offenders, misdemeanants, and folks with prior DUI’s…and you are calling tea partiers crazy?

    And if by “them” you are referring to folks that illegally enter this country time and time again some of which commit crime and certainly cut in front of line of those legally applying to become US citizens, then yes please monitor them.  And it’s not an anti-Mexican thing….I don’t care if they are Hispanic, Muslim, or French, they are committing a crime.  At what point did we stop caring that crimes are being committed?  One of “them”, a man arrested 4 times for drug dealing, deported twice, and was a cartel hitman, recently shot a Sheriffs Deputy in the face killing him and shot two other people one of which was another Sheriffs Deputy…Utah gave this man a drivers license for God’s sake.  So sign me up for favoring the Border Patrol having drones.  I would imagine those with property on the border actually appreciate it.

    The 1984 scenario scares me.  What the NSA (under the Obama Administration) is doing scares me.  But guess what, security comes with a price.

    1. Miwok

      Well stated, theotherside.

      I think the data and observation of the public BY the public agencies should be PUBLIC knowledge. If they are only chasing criminals, or terrorists, then hit the Delete key on the rest.

      Calling it “secret” makes it political fodder.

    2. Tia Will

      So sign me up for favoring the Border Patrol having drones.  I would imagine those with property on the border actually appreciate it.”

      I would actually favor this but for an entirely different reason. I think that many lives might be saved is drones were used to locate those who were attempting unsuccessfully to make a border crossing and get water to them.

  6. sisterhood

    The price of sacred privacy may be that law abiding citizens begin to pay cash for every transaction and register to vote as “Homeless”, which is allowed in this country. Thus making it more difficult for law abiding citizens to be monitored by our government of the people.

    Going off the grid is sounding more and more appealing, isn’t it?

  7. hpierce

    I have no concern with going with the stated policies of the CC, as expressed by David, nor do I have a problem conceptually with the ACLU proposed guidelines.

    I DO have a concern with a paranoid mentality that some may have that would limit non-law enforcement use of drone technology.  The technology could be used for PW to evaluate flood hazards in a major rain event, real time traffic information, FD use to assess a major incident (EMS or fire), or even PD use to assess a situation of real time known incidents.  The latter might serve to mitigate the need for protections to personnel that an MRAP might serve.  Might be the equivalent to a PD “car cam”.  I think we need to strike a balance, and not reject a tool ‘out-of-hand’.

  8. sisterhood

    I used to live in a remote area where I did not place curtains or any kind of window treatment on the front kitchen windows of my home, because I had a spectacular view. I resent having to keep my home windows covered someday, because creepy people will be able to hover their drones near my windows and peak at me. UGH.

    But I guess a new cottage industry will arise for cottage owners who cherish their sacred privacy: one way windows. UGH.

    1. Biddlin

      Why would you worry about drones more than garden variety peeping Toms? It isn’t at all likely that anyone will spend hours of flight time to seek out anonymous victims, in the bush. In town, that is a slightly more likely scenario, but we’ll assume you’ve invested in draperies, just to be safe. How about your neighbour’s cctv security cam? Is it aimed at your window? Does it have ir technology that makes clothing(and drapes) nearly disappear? Can the NSA activate the web cam in your notebook without you knowing? Does your TV watch you?

      As the philosopher, Chuck Berry, observes,”Too much monkey business for me to be involved in!” At some point, you either ignore such nagging possibilities and get on with living or become mired in paranoia and bitterness.


  9. Frankly

    First – everyone should just take a naked selfy and post it so they eliminate the worry that a drone photo might embarrass them.  (kidding of course… mostly).

    Second – drones are here there and everywhere and will only increase.  A Chinese company makes one for $1000 that only takes a couple of hours to lean how to operate.  It has sophisticated navigation… you can program it with a computer to fly a flight plan.  It is GPS enabled with an internal gyro.   You can add a gimbal and a GoPro hi-definition camera that broadcasts to a smart phone screen… there is not much you can do to hide.

    But socialist Europe has cameras everywhere.   I think we will just have to get used to it.

    But there are companies that are devising drone counter measure technology for home owners.   Think radar detector that beeps when a drone is detected close by.

    One way to handle the problem is for the FCC to require drones operate in a specific frequency range, and then create boundaries for where that frequency range can operate.  Then the drone detection devices are simple to detect the use of the frequency range.

    Personally I think the social and economic benefits to drones outweigh most of our civil rights concerns.  Even today an aircraft can fly over with a high definition camera attached.

    1. Davis Progressive

      “Personally I think the social and economic benefits to drones outweigh most of our civil rights concerns.  Even today an aircraft can fly over with a high definition camera attached.”

      i think people are concerned with how these things can be misused.  we generally have expectations of no privacy in public, but increasing privacy as we move from the public to the semi-public to the private home.  i think it’s there that people worry.

    2. Napoleon Pig IV

      “drone counter measure technology for home owners.”

      Now that sounds like a real growth industry. How about if we start with a double-barrel 12 gauge for close-in drones and add a 30.06 deer rifle for those further-away drones? Oink!

  10. PhilColeman

    Among the ACLU listing of police surveillance devices, the one item that I find most fascinating and would have great public value is, “body-worn cameras.” I’m an unabashed supporter of such devices for all local law enforcement officers in uniform. If fact, I’d like to see compulsory state legislation to that effect. “Picture” every Ferguson PD officer having a body cam a few weeks ago. A whole ton of money and lives, past and future, would quite probably have been saved.

    The purchase costs of these devices could be avoided, delayed, or mitigated by securing state and federal grants or loans. The front-loaded costs for obtaining body-worn cameras would be quickly recovered by the marked reduction of civil suits and claims, and administrative time spent in investigating claims of police misbehavior. Fewer criminal prosecutions would go to trial as video recordings confirm or deny defense allegations of unlawful police process during an arrest and companion search.

    A few California law enforcement agencies already have done this. The police unions supported the notion, with some reservations. Now, they love them for the reasons described above.

    And this is where the ACLU enters into this discussion, and this title topic. Press accounts (they’re on the Internet) from these communities invariable seek comment from the ACLU on the concept of patrol officers documenting their entire performance during a police/citizen contact. The ACLU waffles, they do lawyer-speak, speak lots and say little. And it’s easy to understand how the ACLU is between the proverbial rock and hard spot. I was rather surprised the ACLU even put body cams on their list of police surveillance tools (and forgot about wiretaps).

    From the ACLU perspective, there is great appeal is capturing every action by a person holding so much power and discretion over the personal liberties of the citizen who comes in contact with this authoritarian figure. But body cameras even more mightily increase the “civil liberties” of police officers as well, being freed of frivolous complaints, or harassed by mere threats of such, or having their public reputations sullied by a blog post. The ACLU never mentions this point.

    Instead, ACLU officials, pause, and then respond with a tepid-voiced concern about potential police abuse of such recordings. But existing and amended policies and laws can effectively address that issue. The one recent episode found the officer quickly terminated. Meanwhile, let’s hope the ACLU eventually lends it political weight to the issuance of body cams to every uniformed California peace officer.






    1. Barack Palin

      I think the ACLU realizes that putting cameras and microphones on cops will cost them business as the frivolous phony lawsuits will mostly dry up from people claiming the cops treated them badly.

      1. theotherside

        Agreed BP.

        I also agree that body cams on LEO’s is now necessary.  Ferguson PD/City of did Officer Darren Wilson a disservice by not outfitting their patrol cars with cameras or issuing body cams.  Had he been rolling, we would all (all except those that refuse to believe even video or Grand Jury’s) that the shooting of Mike Brown was justified in defense of his own life.

        A problem with body cams has already risen however.  A department in Washington was recently hit with a freedom of information act request from a person with a youtube channel.  The request was for every second of footage that agency has on file for body cams.  Legally the department has to respond.  Logistically it will take years to fulfill the request.  And imagine the most intimate of crime report interviews, sexual assault and domestic violence, you name it, posted on youtube.  Some people are just disgusting.

        Or how about the San Jose PD letting the NAACP write their body cam policy? Yep that’s happening too.

      2. Biddlin

        There were microphones and cameras at hand when WSPD officer Chris Wright tried to kill Kevin Hughey. No doubt the Hugheys wish Wright had been wearing one on the evening of July 9, 2012 and that the other officers who assaulted him on November 9, 2013, when he called for an ambulance, after suffering a fall down the stairs

        I like the idea of “camming cops,” but I suspect, until a few have been reamed by their C.O.s or civilian review boards, there would be a lot of “camera failure” incidents.

        1. theotherside

          I’ve watched that video, those microphones did not prove or disprove Mr Hughey’s claims.  I do know that Chris Wright wishes he had a body cam on that night…  Sorry, but I find it hard to believe a man who would physically assault his 9 months pregnant wife.  And there was no assault claim to the following incident to which you refer.

      3. Davis Progressive

        aclu has supported in general cameras on police officers.  as a non-profit they don’t generate business and drones and other surveillance technology would lead to more not less areas of boundaries to explore on the legal front.

        their proposed policy is quite reasonable – it is simply transparency.  make sure that the elected officials and the public know what we have, that doesn’t mean we don’t need them, or can’t have them.

  11. tribeUSA

    drones have enormous mischief/crime potential, and not only by the government.

    There is sophisticated technology that enables listening to normal indoor conversations (with closed windows) by remotely detecting the vibrations produced by sound waves on window panes (double-pane glass should help). Not only can such drones see inside your house, but they can listen inside as well. Camoflauged, small quiet drones!

    For example, not difficult to imagine a drone carrying (and being able to electronically deploy by user signal) a small weapon. Or drop a noxious liquid or your doggy’s poo on your scummy ex or their front porch, or spray-paint disparaging graffiti on their house (more fun and less risk of getting caught if done by drone–wheee!). Or, I’ve had a few drinks, I think nows a good time to scare this dude the next block over, whiz by him really fast at close range; ha ha I’ll try a little closer now..oops! Lucky I stripped any identifying info. from my smashed up drone; hope I didn’t hit that dudes face too hard; it wasn’t completely maxed out on speed!

    Almost any scenario that can be imagined will likely happen–mischief may get more fun again!

    1. Miwok

      Late in the 80’s I had the opportunity to handle some equipment used by the State (of Oregon in this case) to spy on people for Workman’s Comp Fraud. They had largely off the shelf items, Prosumer stuff that could capture video from a half mile or more, and conversations from more than a mile in a small crowd.

      Laser microphones through a window was child’s play, phone calls were easy to intercept with that mic. The technology has only become more capable and cheaper.

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