So how do we even begin to reclaim local control over police surveillance in a fragmented world? First, we need people to ask the most basic of questions about what surveillance technologies are being purchased with tax dollars and why. Questions of public safety require public comment and oversight. Second, we need to create a space to demand accountability from local leaders. At some point in the fiscal year, local officials should have to explain their technology purchases and policies to the community.
The debate on privacy and law at the Federal Trade Commission was unusually heated that day. Tech industry executives "argued that they were capable of regulating themselves and that government intervention would be costly and counterproductive." Civil libertarians warned that the companies' data capabilities posed "an unprecedented threat to individual freedom." One observed, "We have to decide what human beings are in the electronic age. Are we just going to be chattel for commerce?"
For decades, such surveillance was prohibited under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. After the Church Committee revealed a sordid three-decade history of intelligence abuses, Congress enacted FISA to protect Americans from warrantless surveillance masquerading as "foreign intelligence" collection. The law required the government, when acting inside the United States, to obtain permission from a secret court before intercepting communications between foreigners and Americans. The FISA Court could approve the surveillance only if the government showed probable cause that the target was a foreign power or its agent--such as a foreign government official, or an American conducting espionage for another nation.