In March, the Grand Rapids City Commission formally adopted an administrative policy governing the purchase and use of surveillance equipment. Adoption of this policy makes Grand Rapids one for the first cities in the world to try addressing the issue of mass surveillance in a serious way.

Last month, the Grand Rapids City Commission approved an administrative policy governing the purchase and use of surveillance equipment. Grand Rapids has become one for the first cities in the country to try addressing the issue of mass surveillance in a serious way, and now has one of the nation’s most progressive policies on this issue. The ACLU of Michigan, which worked with the city to help craft the policy, commends Grand Rapids for taking this step.

Some months ago, the Western Branch of the ACLU of Michigan began working with the City of Grand Rapids on its surveillance policies. This started when local ACLU members and community partners began reporting concerns about police and city use of personal information. Through our investigation, we learned that Grand Rapids currently uses license-plate scanners; video cameras to monitor public behavior; Filemaker software to organize and store citizen information; and other undisclosed surveillance technologies. (The complete list of technologies used by the City is not known.)

Following our investigation, we decided to act. In an effort to address the concerns of our members, our ACLU of Michigan branch studied ways various cities have increased privacy protections. While most cities jump at the opportunity to increase their surveillance, few take any concrete steps to give the people more privacy protections. Citizens are left more vulnerable, with no knowledge of when, how or why they are being watched. However, we found that in 2013, the City Council in Seattle responded to public outrage over the Seattle Police Department’s use of drones by implementing the nation’s first ordinance providing transparency over the use of surveillance technology.

Seattle’s ordinance requires city departments (including the police department) seeking to buy surveillance equipment or services to go publicly before the City Council and present detailed policies for use of the equipment. These details include data-gathering procedures and the length of time data can be stored.). This process gives the public notice about the technology and forces the department to seriously consider and review the implications of the technology before it is adopted.

Following this lead, the Western Branch of ACLU of Michigan urged the City of Grand Rapids to adopt a similar policy. We are delighted that the city agreed, and has now implemented a surveillance policy.

For all the similarities to the Seattle policy, though, ours differs in some important ways. For example, the Grand Rapids policy requires that the City create a public website that reports the technologies and policies it uses.

A lot of work remains to be done. The Grand Rapids policy is not perfect. For instance, the policy doesn’t restrict or prohibit the use of any particular technology.

Even so, this agreement marks a vast improvement over past policies (or lack thereof) by creating a layer of transparency and openness that would not exist otherwise. Most importantly, it gives people an opportunity to lobby their elected officials when a particular technology is too intrusive.

We appreciate the City of Grand Rapids for its efforts. Yes, there are still areas where the ACLU and the city disagree. But this collaboration shows how, when cities work with us, we can safeguard our communities and protect our civil liberties at the same time.

Now, it is up to the people to decide how much surveillance is too much surveillance.

By ACLU of Michigan Staff