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San Diego finds a compromise on biometric surveillance, but skeptics remain

San Diego finds a compromise on biometric surveillance, but skeptics remain

An accommodation between the right to privacy and the government’s duty to protect has been reached on the use of biometric surveillance in the southern Californian city of San Diego. It will require operational oversight, which makes police officials and privacy advocates wary.

And looking at recent history, this policy is not written in stone.

The city council voted 5-4 two months ago for an oversight system designed to give police fettered use of biometric surveillance. It was part of a multi-step process involving hearings and reviews by the city. The final gate was the approval of employee groups, and that came last week, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

The city has a year to prepare for the use of the technology, including setting up a privacy advisory board and standardizing reports to the council from departments wanting to use biometric surveillance.

Annual reports showing how it was used also are required, and councilmembers can reject across the board use of the technology after reading the reports. The police department says it uses body cams, DNA equipment and polygraph machines. Each will require approval to be used.

Police department officials no doubt would rather not have another report to make, and they have an ingrained distrust of civilians weighing their actions.

Residents and government-reform groups, on the other hand, have seen their share of rubber-stamp panels created as fig leaves that ignore problems.

Anti-surveillance groups might have the biggest beef here.

The city began operating 3,000 streetlight cameras in 2016 without informing the public. When it came to light in 2019, details of what was being collected and why dribbled out until unhappiness among voters forced politicians to seek common ground.

Some practices (but not all) were curtailed three years ago, after the California legislature passed a law to temporarily rein in police deployments, and continues to work on others dealing with private and public uses of the technology.

Already, at least one exemption to the ordinance has been approved. Local police working on federal law enforcement teams will not have to report what they used. According to The Union-Tribune, some federal task forces do not allow anyone on those forces to discuss methods.

Councilmembers themselves can, rightly, feel like they have accomplished something few other municipal, state and federal representatives have. Most politicians have ignored the matter or sometimes have imposed surveillance bans with too little flexibility to even study it for accommodations.

Finding a trend is difficult. Some government bodies, like New Orleans, La., have gone back and forth. The state of Colorado has been more forthright. Like New Orleans, the state of Virginia has moved like the tide, but in this case, banning regulations were ultimately thrown out.

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