New Somerville Policy First in MA to Add Controls, Require Public Transparency for Surveillance Technology

Executive order balances privacy and civil liberty protections with police investigative and public safety needs; Requires new approval, operational, and public notification protocols

SOMERVILLE – As surveillance technology use grows nationally, the City of Somerville has joined 19 U.S. cities and two states working with the ACLU to protect individual rights while preserving public safety. On Oct. 4, with the full support of the Somerville Police Department, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone signed the Executive Policy on Surveillance Technology, which is believed to be the first such policy implemented in the Commonwealth. 
 
The new policy creates greater transparency and controls on potentially invasive technologies such as surveillance cameras. It goes into effect immediately and includes new approval, operational, and public notification and meeting requirements on the purchase and implementation of surveillance technology, with exceptions made for emergency police investigative or public safety needs.
 
"Kudos to Mayor Curtatone for taking leadership on this critically important issue. Far too often, police departments across Massachusetts and the country obtain invasive, costly surveillance equipment in the dark, without any meaningful transparency or oversight. This executive policy charts against that trend, requiring public transparency and engagement, thoughtful deliberation, and approval by a democratically elected official before the Somerville police can acquire surveillance technology like drones and cell phone tracking devices,” said Kade Crockford, Technology for Liberty Program Director, of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Pursuant to this policy, we look forward to working with the people of Somerville to ensure new technologies don't get out ahead of our rights, and encourage other municipalities in Massachusetts to adopt their own strong policies to that effect."
 
Going forward, a multi-step process will now be required before new surveillance technology may be purchased and deployed in the city. Prior to the acquisition of new surveillance equipment, the Administration will submit any necessary grants or appropriations to the Board of Aldermen for their review and consideration. The policy requires Mayoral approval of the proposed use of the equipment and public notification plans that include opportunity for public meetings. In addition to various oversight requirements, the policy states that operational protocols describing “how the department's use of the equipment will be regulated to protect privacy, anonymity, and limit the risk of potential abuse” as well as “how and when data will be collected and retained and who will have access to any data captured” must also be transparent and pre-approved.
 
“Technology is changing fast, and it’s our responsibility to be sure our policies keep up, but we faced a real challenge here. New surveillance tools can be critical to effective police work. Meanwhile, privacy and civil liberty protections are critical to a free democracy. That’s why this policy introduces checks and balances designed to keep the public safe from crime as well as from privacy and rights violations,” said Mayor Curtatone. “I want to thank the ACLU of Massachusetts, community members, and the examples set by our fellow cities for helping us develop an informed policy that best serves the public interest. I look forward to working with the Board of Aldermen to develop and open and transparent system that best meets the needs of our community.”
 
To ensure criminal investigations and public safety actions are not impeded, an exception allows the Somerville Police Department to use surveillance equipment on a temporary basis subject to a series of requirement and approvals, such as in the case of a lawfully issued search warrant.
 
“Introducing greater transparency and engagement around the tools we use to protect public safety fits right in with our community policing goals. When we build trust and confidence in our force and our methods, we strengthen the community connections that ultimately help us keep Somerville safe,” said Chief of Police David Fallon. “The Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission understands this, which is why surveillance transparency is one of the steps required of police departments seeking full accreditation, as the SPD is.”
 
As other cities have done, the Somerville policy seeks to be “future-proof” via requirements that will apply broadly to all emerging surveillance technology. However, specific steps regarding video surveillance—the only surveillance technology currently in use in Somerville—will follow. The SPD will be posting their policies and procedures for use and operation of all video surveillance technology as well as an inventory of all camera locations in the city. SPD has noted that there is no evidence that identifying the location of cameras leads to more crime, but rather, it can be a deterrent.