City of Lexington Acknowledges Need for Surveillance Oversight But Its New Policy Misses the Mark

On April 30, 2018, The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG) took a surprising and unexpected step by acknowledging the need for oversight and accountability for the use of surveillance in the City of Lexington.

The council enacted a new Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that directly relates to the use of surveillance cameras in and around LFUCG owned properties. According to the document, cameras are generally used to monitor, and to provide a record of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in areas such as hallways, public areas and parking lots.

This action appears to be a direct response to We See You Watching Lexington’s push for oversight and transparency of surveillance technology in the city. The grassroots organization formed after a SpyPole with four cameras was erected at Berry Hill Skate Park in July 2017.

The pilot program, spearheaded by Council Member Fred Brown (Dist. 8), is the first of its kind in Lexington. Before the erection of the SpyPole, visible government surveillance focused solely on the monitoring of traffic and certain government buildings. Utilizing visible surveillance cameras to monitor citizens in a public park setting, especially one closely bordered by private homeowners, was unheard of in Lexington.

Open records requests filed by We See You Watching Lexington last year seeking written policies relating to data retention, data sharing and monitoring of the cameras turned up nothing. The city apparently installed the cameras with no such policies in place. We See You Watching Lexington was able to obtain footage from the cameras through a separate open records request.

As far as we can determine, this new SOP serves as the first written surveillance policy the city has adopted in this age of mass data gathering and privacy encroachment by an ever-growing number of government agencies.

Consisting of a one-page document, the SOP designates specific policies relating only to the operation of fixed surveillance cameras and does not stipulate any specific policies regarding any of the 29 “super-secret” mobile surveillance cameras currently used by the Lexington Police Department. The city sued We See You Watching Lexington director Mike Maharrey to keep the police department cameras secret after he won an appeal to the state attorney general.

The document purports to apply to “the procurement and use of security cameras and electronic surveillance,” but only specifically addresses cameras.  As written, it does not pertain to the acquisition of other invasive forms of electronic surveillance equipment such as automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), facial recognition technology and cell site simulators, devices that enable police to track the location of cell phones and even monitor communications.

The new city policy places the responsibility for camera acquisition and placement solely in the hands of the commissioner of public safety.

More generally, the supervisor of security manages, monitors and maintains electronic surveillance. This person is responsible for determining who has access to data, how it is retained, and under what conditions it may be released. The supervisor of security answers to the commissioner of public safety.

The SOP stipulates that recorded and archived electronic data will be filed and retained in a database for 30 days. It is unclear what is done with it after that time has elapsed, as the policy makes no specific provision for the process of deleting information from the system. According to information We See You Watching Lexington obtained on the cameras in Berry Hill Skate Park, the system is set up on a loop-recorder and data is simply recorded over.

The SOP does not provide any policy for the retention of data after the 30 day period.

The document states that “The procurement of new camera projects shall follow the policies set forth by the Division of Purchasing.”

Maharrey said he was pleased that the city finally acknowledged the necessity of establishing policies on surveillance.

“For the last year, we’ve been pushing for accountability and oversight for Lexington’s present and future programs. Basically, it’s been crickets. I guess somebody was listening. The city has acknowledged the problem, and that’s a great first step. Now the council needs to take the next step,” he said. “The SOP doesn’t get us where we need to be. Putting surveillance policy decisions in the hands of one or two city employees is exactly what we want to avoid. The city council needs to formulate a comprehensive policy on surveillance that includes specific council approval for any and all surveillance technologies with public input.”

We See You Watching Lexington has proposed such a local ordinance.

Maharrey said he’s glad the city has finally acknowledged that it needs to have some kind of policy for cameras, but he remains concerned about Lexington police and other city agencies obtaining more invasive surveillance technologies. He said it’s only a matter of time before cell site simulators, license plate readers and facial recognition technology finds its way to Lexington.

“They put up cameras in a park with absolutely no structure for accountability or oversight in place. Now, they’re trying to cobble something together retroactively. I don’t want a repeat performance when police get their hands on more invasive technologies. I don’t think most people in this town would be thrilled if the police department got its hands on a device that can track their location and access all of the data on their phone without any kind of policy in place. That’s the precedent that’s been set. “

This new procedural document is, without question, a step in the right direction. It’s a positive sign that the city council recognizes the need for written surveillance policies going forward.  But it’s merely a small step and it lacks the kind of stride a growing city like Lexington requires in these modern times.

We got their attention, but it appears that continued pressure on LFUCG council members will be required to achieve the type of action our town desperately needs as the surveillance state grows and spreads. This community doesn’t need a city bureaucrat to overlook how surveillance is being used. Lexington deserves a city council willing to put into place enforceable, legal policies that provide actual oversight of how these devices are used in our hometown – before they are purchased and put into service.

I strongly urge to contact your local council member and simply ask them to protect the privacy of Lexington’s citizens by adopting this We See You Watching Lexington’s proposed ordinance. To locate your local council member, click here.

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