Oakland, Calif., set to ban predictive policing, biometric surveillance tools

Oakland, California (Getty Images)

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Oakland, California, will permanently ban all government use of predictive policing and biometric surveillance tools early next year, officials said.

Joe DeVries, the city’s chief privacy officer, told StateScoop Wednesday the decision was reached when the city’s privacy commission realized it hadn’t yet regulated the technologies.

The Oakland City Council is set to take a final vote Jan. 12 on a new surveillance ordinance, which, if approved, will ban police from using predictive policing software like PredPol and biometric surveillance, like gait analysis, to catch criminals. The ban on predictive policing was spurred by the city’s renewed contract with Forensic Logic, a law enforcement technology company that offers predictive policing software as one of its services, while the ban on biometric surveillance was put in place to prevent the city’s crime lab from gathering mass intelligence on residents.

The Oakland Police Department doesn’t currently use or have an interest in using either technology, DeVries said, but the pair of bans will ensure that the city doesn’t have to speculate whether any future technology acquisitions are legal or not.

“We want to lay it out, as a flat-out ban, so that if some future technology comes forward that’s not [made by] Forensic Logic, we don’t have to go through this whole use-policy process,” DeVries said.

The city had planned earlier this year to “clean up” language in the surveillance ordinance, which was originally adopted in 2018, DeVries said. Those fixes would’ve included “pretty minor” adjustments like clarifying whether agencies had to come to ask the City Council for money to replace technological assets.

But about that same time, DeVries said, the Oakland Police Department was seeking permission to renew its contract with Forensic Logic, which provided “critical services” to the agency with software that generated crime reports quickly.

The chair of the city’s privacy advisory commission, Brian Hofer, noted the department didn’t yet have a use policy governing how it could safely and fairly use Forensic Logic’s services, despite having had a contract with the company for several years.

Hofer had initial concerns about the data-sharing between Oakland Police and Forensic Logic, but as he looked more closely at the company’s user manual, curtailing the predictive policing capability also offered by Forensic Logic became a greater concern, DeVries said.

“We had to have Oakland City Council put the new contract with Forensic technology on hold because it was too big,” DeVries said. “This is a major thing, and we’re going to grant another three years, maybe even five, without having a use policy in place?”

DeVries and Hofer developed a use policy for Forensic Logic’s other tools, like crime-reporting software, then added the ban on predictive policing to the surveillance ordinance. DeVries also said Oakland Police didn’t want the predictive policing technology at all, adding that the department is “very aware of implicit bias concerns.”

He said a similar coincidence also led to the inclusion of the biometric surveillance ban. When the Oakland Police wanted city council approval to purchase new materials for the crime lab, like pipettes and special envelopes, Hofer noted that the city didn’t have a use policy in place for any biometric surveillance technologies that the lab might use in the future.

The crime lab doesn’t currently gather massive amounts of data on Oakland residents, DeVries said, but banning technologies that might lead to that in the future made sense.

“We’re really trying to better define in the ordinance that they were banning biometric surveillance technology, but it’s not the technology that’s used in the crime lab,” DeVries said. “They tried to make that distinction in the ordinance.”

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California, Oakland, predictive policing, Surveillance
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