The city of Lexington sued me because I asked some questions about its surveillance technology. It sounds crazy, but in effect, that’s what happened.
Now, after both the attorney general and a circuit court judge ruled against it, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government has decided to take the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
My legal saga started last summer. After surveillance cameras appeared in Berry Hill Skate Park, I submitted an open records request in an effort to determine what other surveillance programs Lexington operates.
The city acknowledged the cameras, but refused to divulge any information about their nature, or the policies guiding their use. It only released heavily redacted documents relating to their cost. The Lexington Police Department cited a statute that exempts documents related to homeland security, along with a second statute exempting certain “investigative reports.”
On appeal, the attorney general’s office rejected both exemptions and ordered the city to release the documents. At that point, the city filed a lawsuit against me in an effort to overturn the AG’s decision.
Fayette Circuit Judge John Reynolds agreed with the AG. He rejected the city’s arguments and ordered the LPD to release all relevant documents.
But the city persists.
The city claims divulging information about surveillance cameras could jeopardize officer safety and hinder future investigations. This may sound plausible, but the city has failed to convince both the AG’s office and Judge Reynolds that their concerns outweigh the public’s right to know.
This leads to a bigger point.
We should have had this discussion before the LPD ever bought these surveillance cameras.
Law enforcement agencies use surveillance for many legitimate purposes. But the intrusive nature of surveillance technology opens the door for abuse.
Cameras are just the tip of the iceberg. Police departments have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment, including “cell site simulators” that can track cell-phone locations and even access data on mobile electronic devices, automatic license plate readers that can capture and store information about a vehicle’s location, facial recognition technology, surveillance drones and software that monitors social media posts.
This kind of surveillance technology has a legitimate role in maintaining public safety but, without oversight and transparency, government spying can turn into an Orwellian nightmare.
As far as we know, the LPD does not own or operate any of the more sophisticated surveillance technology.
But it’s only a matter of time. The city needs to have policies and procedures in place before it does.
I founded an organization called We See You Watching Lexington to address surveillance in Lexington. We want to ensure all surveillance programs are transparent, and government agencies remain accountable to the public and elected officials.
To this end, we propose a local ordinance that will take the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies here in Lexington. This proposed ordinance would require the LPD and other government agencies to get approval from the city council before obtaining any type of surveillance technology.
The process outlined by the ordinance requires government agencies to develop a detailed surveillance plan and use policy for every technology before they acquire or use it. The plan must detail costs, how the technology will be used, procedures for storing and sharing information, and it must outline policies to ensure privacy rights are protected. It mandates full public disclosure with an opportunity for the community to weigh in before the council makes its decision.
This would create an environment of transparency and accountability, and would enable the community to weigh in before police commence with surveillance programs.
If I have to go to court every time Lexington gets new surveillance technology, I will. But I’d rather not. Thecouncil should act now to introduce and pass an ordinance to ensure surveillance programs are operated with oversight and transparency. As my legal saga reveals, right now, they are not.
Michael Maharrey is founder and director of We See You Watching Lexington.