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Report: California Cities Spent $65M On Spy Gear In Past Decade With Almost No Oversight

Sacramento, Calif. (CBS SACRAMENTO) -- California cities and counties have spent more than $65 million on high-tech surveillance technology in the past decade, including drones, cellular "stingray" simulators and license plate readers being given to local law enforcement with little to no public oversight.

The new research from the ACLU of Northern California (ACLUNC) and the ACLU of California (ACLUCA) found that California's 58 counties and its 60 largest cities have spent more than $65 million on such spy technology through both federally-funded grants and private donors. The report notes that city and county boards regularly accept surveillance tech funding and the millions found spent in this report are likely "just the tip of the iceberg."

"We found evidence of public debate related to surveillance technology adoption less than 15 percent of the time," the ACLUCA told ArsTechnica in a statement via e-mail. "None of the 52 communities with two or more surveillance technologies publicly debated every technology. We found a publicly-available use policy for fewer than one in five surveillance technologies."

The ACLU report found that more than three-quarters (76 percent) of the 118 examined cities and counties were using one or more of the following types of tech surveillance tools: license plate readers, drones, facial recognition, cameras worn by officers, video surveillance and "stingrays," a fake cell phone tower used to track targeted devices.

But while communities including the City of San Jose, Los Angeles County and Kern County "have or have agreed" to acquire drones, the ACLU cites the overwhelming majority of communities in which there has been absolutely no public debate over the use of such spy technology.

Eleven communities use the controversial "stingray" devices —Alameda County, Los Angeles County, Sacramento County, San Bernardino County, San Diego County, San Francisco County, and the cities of Fremont, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and San Jose—also have them, ArsTechnica reports. But as the ACLUCA concluded, "none of these communities have engaged in public debate about their use of stingrays or published policies explaining how they are used."

The city of Oakland was found to have the single highest number of surveillance devices, with 1,750 tech surveillance tools. The agricultural city of Bakersfield comes in second, with 472 such devices.

"We're hearing from community members really late in the process that they finally find out about surveillance that's going to hit the streets, and we find out from counties and cities that are about to deploy and they don't have policies in place. What's out there? How much technology is going through the [legislative] process? Is there a public debate? Are there policies in place?"

The ACLU's research follows reports that private donors are directly funding police departments to buy high-tech spy gear. In one case, the Target Corp. contributed $200,000 to the Los Angeles Police Department to purchase state-of-the-art software that tracks targeted individuals' every digital move.

Model legislation set up by the ACLU would require government gathering "information, including crime statistics, that help the community assess whether the surveillance technology has been effective at achieving its identified purposes." Several local councils including San Francisco City and County Supervisor John Avalos are set to announce plans to support surveillance oversight.

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