A drone sits idle at the rooftop of the Chula Vista Police headquarters. / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

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The Chula Vista City Council approved new rules this week intended to guide officials on how they can use and acquire surveillance technology. It comes in response to the public push-back over a Union-Tribune report in late 2020 revealing that officials had shared license plate data with federal immigration authorities.

For years, bigger cities across California have been grappling with how to implement technology into their day-to-day operations while being open about the risks to civil rights and liberties. Often, devices and software capable of monitoring and identifying individuals have ended up in the hands of police and other officials with little to no discussion or meaningful oversight. 

Rather than an ordinance akin to what San Diego passed over the summer, which activists had been calling for, Chula Vista pressed ahead Tuesday with a policy aimed at boosting awareness and transparency of surveillance gear. 

Among other things, the policy establishes an advisory commission and a process for writing the rules around specific devices and software. It also requires the city to create an impact report before buying surveillance technology and allows officials to restrict the use and sale of sensitive personal information to third parties.

The framework for the policy came from a 12-person task force whose public meetings and briefings were facilitated over a roughly six-month period by Madaffer Enterprises, a firm that’s also helping Chula Vista with its smart city initiative. But in the end, the policy didn’t include everything the group recommended. 

The task force, for instance, urged the city to create a new full-time position — a chief privacy officer — but officials said they would need to consider that proposal during budget hearings. In the meantime, the city plans to hire a consultant who can serve as a liaison to the advisory commission. 

Others warned that the policy, unlike an ordinance, didn’t have much teeth to it should the technology or data be abused. In response, officials characterized the policy as a good start, something that future leaders might want to build on, and acknowledged on Tuesday the work of activists on the ground. 

“We’re recognizing the community spurred us forward, and rightly so,” said Councilman Steve Padilla. 

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