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Silicon Valley County First To Force Law Enforcement To Seek Prior Approval For Snooping

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor
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Santa Clara county, California, became the first known county in the country Tuesday to require law enforcement to request prior approval for acquiring new surveillance technologies.

The home of Silicon Valley is furthering their firm stance on privacy protections by the unanimous passage of a new ordinance that will encompass a wide array of tools that law enforcement uses quite often. According to the statute’s text, surveillance technology “means any electronic device, system using an electronic device, or similar technological tool, used, designed, or primarily intended to collect, retain, process, or share, audio, electronic visual, location, thermal, olfactory or similar information.”

Law enforcement apparatuses like Stingray phone trackers, license plate scanners and closed-circuit cameras and TV’s, will not be permitted in the county unless the users had prior authorization. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Stingray tracking devices “are invasive cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell phone tower and send out signals to trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information. When used to track a suspect’s cell phone, they also gather information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby.”

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors forbade a plan to approve the acquisition of a cell-site simulator, or Stingray device, in May. The deputy county executive, James Williams, wrote to his boss Jeffrey Smith, county executive, that the two parties “were unable to reach agreement on a contract for the purchase of the System,” but “the development of policies concerning surveillance technology will continue.”

According to the ordinance, law enforcement within Santa Clara county are mandated to publish a perennial surveillance report that details instances of success as well as failure, and how often certain technologies were used.

Sheriff Laurie Smith told the Mercury News that the language of the ordinance is too “broad and onerous” and will ultimately hamper law enforcement agencies’ intelligence gathering capabilities.

Matt Cagle of the Northern California chapter of the ACLU told the Mercury News that “cities and counties shouldn’t be deciding what they’re going to use in secret, and there are so many ways they can collect information that’s very personal.”

Supervisor Mike Wasserman argues that the ordinance is at minimum a fair-minded compromise. “Striking a perfect balance can be tricky and I don’t believe this is perfect, but it does a reasonable job,” he said. “But it’s very important that this is reviewed and looked upon to make sure we get it right–it’s too important to get wrong.”

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