A map showing potential locations for new "smart cities technology," which will include cameras. The number of proposed cameras will be reduced to 90 under an amended version of a City Council ordinance, according to Councilman Jason Williams' office.

A New Orleans City Council committee on Wednesday heard arguments from members from local advocacy group Eye on Surveillance on why it should adopt an ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Jason Williams, that would place stricter limits on how the city can use its surveillance technology, from crime cameras to the storage of location data scraped from resident 911 calls.

Eye On Surveillance, a local coalition of individuals and groups concerned about New Orleans’ growing surveillance capabilities, drafted the ordinance alongside Williams’ office. The ordinance would create stringent and comprehensive reporting and approval processes for new surveillance capabilities and uses, while banning certain technologies outright, including facial recognition and license plate readers.

Some council members, while overall supportive of creating boundaries and limitations on government surveillance, said they heard from more constituents that wanted to add more crime cameras than from those who wanted to limit surveillance. They expressed concerns about taking tools out of the city’s crime fighting toolbox. Five members brought up the use of crime cameras to catch people illegally dumping trash as a positive program that uses surveillance.

But Williams, who is preparing a run for Orleans Parish District Attorney as a criminal justice reformer, said that the ordinance wasn’t about getting rid of the positive uses of surveillance tools, but creating a process to measure the benefits of new surveillance with their costs and risks. And, he said, the ordinance would allow the public to finally have a full view and chance to participate in these debates.

“As we’re all aware, surveillance technology is becoming an increasingly widespread feature of our modern lives,” Williams said during the virtual meeting. “The combined power of these various forms of technology is enormous. Government actors across the world have been notoriously secretive about how data and surveillance tools is used. And with technology constantly advancing, the lack of any clear boundaries poses a very real concern.”

Williams said that he wasn’t accusing anyone of abusing surveillance technology right now, but that current city officials have no power over what future legislators will do.

“A key problem in creating such powerful technology systems, is that history tells us that it can be and inevitably will be misused,” he said. “And surveillance technology put in place for one purpose can eventually be expanded and used for other purposes.”

 And, he argued, if the City Council and Mayor won’t put checks in place, no one would.

“No law enforcement agency is ever going to curtail their power on their own as it relates to technology,” he said. “So I think it’s incumbent on the City Council and mayor to weigh that benefit to the public or public safety or quality of life to what the cost is. Everything has a cost.”

The committee did not take a vote on the ordinance, and Williams noted that “this is the beginning of a conversation.” 

In March, Williams unexpectedly pressed pause on a city program that would have installed 146 new street light-mounted public cameras in the city. He announced that before the program moved forward, the council would need to pass an ordinance to regulate, monitor and set boundaries for the city’s use of surveillance and data collection technology.

The resulting draft ordinance, if passed, would create outright bans on some specific pieces of surveillance technology, including facial recognition and automated license plate readers. But perhaps more important in the long-term, the ordinance sets up stringent and extensive reporting requirements and a new, public approval process for all surveillance technology. 

“The fact is that the status quo that we live under now is that we have no opportunity to evaluate and debate surveillance technology,” Chris Kaiser, advocacy director of the ACLU of Louisiana and Eye on Surveillance member, told the council. “The status quo is that the government is really free to acquire, deploy, expand existing surveillance technology outside of public view and without public input and without city oversight. Often, as a result, we really don’t know what’s out there.”

Under the draft legislation, every piece of surveillance or data technology, as defined by the ordinance, would need to be approved by the City Council at a public meeting. The broad definition includes video and audio recorders, biometric readers, x-ray vans, social media monitoring software and predictive policing software.

The City Council would have to approve new surveillance technology before it was put into use, and technology that is already in use by the city would need to gain council approval within a year of the ordinance going into effect. 

The approval process laid out in the draft ordinance would follow the same procedure that the council uses to consider and approve new departmental regulations. City departments would need to submit a “surveillance use request” to the council for approval if it’s adding new surveillance technology, using existing technology in a new way or is considering entering into an agreement with a third-party that involves the use of surveillance technology. 

Even when the council approves a request, the approval would only last for a period of three years, at which time the city department would need to reapply for approval. In the meantime, the ordinance would require extensive annual reporting while an approval is active. 

Any city entity using approved surveillance technology would need to submit an “annual surveillance report,” which would include how often and where the technology was deployed, as well as “the demographics of the surveillance technology targets, including but not limited to race or ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status.” 

The annual report would contain a “surveillance impact report” that would include total annual costs for the technology, crime statistics to illustrate the benefits and information about the technology including product descriptions from private manufacturers. It would also include “an assessment identifying any potential or realized impacts on privacy and civil liberties, as well as plans to safeguard the rights of the public.”

There are some technologies that would be banned outright by the ordinance. The first banned technology is facial recognition. The city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, which operates the city’s network of hundreds of public cameras, already has a policy banning the use of facial recognition. But the policy is an internal document that doesn’t need to be approved by council, and some have questioned how legally enforceable the policy truly is. 

The second banned technology are automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs. The city has ALPRs installed around the city. Unlike the crime camera network, which is administered by the office of homeland security, the ALPR network is controlled by the NOPD, according to city Chief Technology Officer Jonathon Wisbey. The ordinance says that existing ALPRs could stay in place.

The third banned technology are cell-site simulators that can intercept and record data from cell phone calls. While that technology has been employed by the federal government, it hasn’t been used on the city level, Wisbey said.

The last piece of banned surveillance are “characteristic tracking systems.” These pieces of software are similar facial recognition programs, except that instead of facial features, the software recognizes clothing, colors, gender, race and other demographic information. Some software claims to be able to identify and track the gait or walking patterns of individuals. 

As The Lens reported in 2018, the city does have characteristic tracking software. But Wisbey said that it stopped using its main characteristic tracking software, Briefcam, in late 2019. 

While City Council members were supportive of certain aspects of the ordinance, like a facial recognition ban, several members remained unconvinced by various provisions.

Councilmembers Joe Giarrusso and Cyndi Nguyen both said that they believed their constituents are demanding additional surveillance technology to fight crime more than they’re calling for restrictions and boundaries.

“There certainly appears to be consensus about not utilizing the face surveillance systems and the characteristic tracking software. That’s not something we’re interested in,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said. “I think on some of the others we probably need more conversation over, including the license plate leaders.”

Several council members raised concerns about banning license plate readers. They said the technology was vital for tracking crime suspects and amber alerts. 

“This is the part I’m struggling to understand,” Giarrusso said. “There’s no right to privacy when you step out of your home number one. And your license plate is a public document.” 

In response, Marvin Arnold, a member of Eye on Surveillance and a data analyst who’s worked with the Independent Police Monitor, talk about the “kaleidoscope theory.” He said that one data point — such as a license plate passing through an intersection — doesn’t reveal much private information. But if there are readers at every intersection of the city, then hypothetically, the city could track where any individual goes, what time they leave their house, where they work, what stores they shop at and more, which might be considered a privacy violation under Supreme Court precedent

“If you collect a lot of different pings, a lot of different pieces of information, a kaleidoscope of information about someone, that then starts to become very powerful,” he said, “We see the cumulative information that these things can present as a huge challenge.”

Arnold closed by saying that while some of the measures may seem extreme, they were in line with national movements toward greater surveillance regulation.

“We’re trying to stay in line with the national trend,” he said. “We want to stress that the tides are changing and momentum nationwide is moving toward a more aggressive stance against surveillance.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...