Letter to Lexington Urban County Council Members

The following letter was sent to all Lexington council members on Aug. 6, 2018

Dear council members,

As I’m sure you’re aware, the LFUCG sued me last year in order to keep information about 29 “mobile surveillance cameras” the LPD owns and operates a secret. While I have not particularly enjoyed fighting a lawsuit, I am glad it has brought this issue into the public spotlight.

The bottom line is we should not be wasting taxpayer dollars fighting over this in court. We should have had this discussion before the police department ever acquired these cameras.

I asked for information about Lexington’s surveillance technology because I want to ensure it’s being operated in a way that respects basic privacy rights.

The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach that put cameras in Barry Hill Skate Park is unacceptable. When the cameras were installed, there was no neighborhood input, there were no policies in place governing sharing and use of the footage, and the cameras actually monitor private property.

Cameras in a park may not seem like a big deal. Police department “mobile surveillance cameras” may not seem like a big deal. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Local law enforcement agencies across the country are obtaining high-tech spy gear such as cell site simulators (devices that can track cell phones and access device data, including phone conversation), automatic license plate readers, drones, facial recognition technology, social media monitoring software and more. It’s only a matter of time before this spyware comes to Lexington.

I recognize that law enforcement agencies use surveillance for many legitimate law enforcement purposes. But the intrusive nature of surveillance technology opens the door for abuse. It should never be used in an opaque vacuum.

Government agencies should have a written plan in place directing and limiting the use of surveillance technology before they acquire or use it. These plans should outline the costs and benefits of the technology, and should include specific policies directing when and under what circumstances it can be deployed, policies on the sharing and retention of data, policies outlining how information incidentally collected on innocent third parties will be handled, and policies to ensure surveillance isn’t directed at minority communities in a discriminatory way.  Furthermore, the plan should be subject to public scrutiny and council approval at a public meeting – again –  before the agency acquires or begins using this technology.

To this end, We See You Watching Lexington proposes a local ordinance that would establish this kind of oversight and transparency. The language was drafted by lawyers at the ACLU with input from other organizations concerned about privacy in this era of rapidly advancing technology. You can download the model language HERE.

I have contacted a number of you individually about this issue, as have several other people involved in the We See You Watching Lexington coalition. I’m disappointed with the lack of response.

I am sending this to each of you simultaneously so there is no excuse. Nobody can say they weren’t aware of this issue.

Our coalition is growing rapidly as people more and more people are becoming aware of the secrecy currently surrounding surveillance in Lexington. We plan to keep pushing aggressively until this ordinance is introduced and passed. The vast majority of people I talk to don’t think basic oversight and transparency are too much to ask for.

I’m hoping some of you on the council will step up and take action. The communities you represent are waiting for you to step up and take action.

If you have any questions, I would be happy to talk with you individually or as a group, by phone or in person.

Thank you for your consideration.

Michael Maharrey
Director, We See You Watching Lexington

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