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In the sprit of Independence Day, Beacon Hill should restore checks and balances on police surveillance

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  July 5, 2013 11:01 AM

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The Massachusetts State Police celebrated Independence Day by tweeting photos of themselves questioning and searching people who carried signs protesting unchecked and – until recently, secret – domestic government surveillance practices.

Few people argued with the police decision to lay a heavy surveillance blanket over official Independence Day festivities on the Esplanade.

What’s troubling is that the State Police admit that they still don’t have a policy to regulate who has access to the video images innocent and ordinary Bostonians taking part in the festivities. Is there really no policy on how those images are stored, used, shared or – it seems – posted on line?

The Globe quotes State Police spokesman David Procopio as stating that “officials plan to develop a policy but they did not want to delay implementing the cameras, which they had to rush to install in time for the Fourth celebrations.”

No doubt, the absence of a privacy and data security policy explains why the police thought it was okay to tweet images of themselves with peaceful protestors. Or, could it be that they captured photos of everyone – and then later decided to post the images of themselves with protestors? Either way, the chilling effect on protected political speech is alarming.

The excuse that law enforcement didn’t have time to adopt a clear data usage and privacy policy isn’t credible. After all, the state police, together with the Boston Police Department and the local FBI, have long engaged in surveillance in public places. Remember Occupy Boston?

Nor is this the first time that Massachusetts law enforcement officials have targeted peaceful protestors. Last October, the ACLU of Massachusetts, together with the local National Lawyers Guild chapter, obtained documents that were published in a report, “Policing Dissent,” showing that Massachusetts State police and Boston police monitored peace groups such as Veterans for Peace, Code Pink, and historian Howard Zinn, putting their names into a permanent criminal data base.

Back then, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis assured the public that his department destroyed all information on innocent people within 90 days, but that a “computer error” had caused the data to be retained indefinitely.

Now, it seems, there are no policies whatsoever to guide law enforcement who engage in domestic surveillance of ordinary Americans.

It is time for the Massachusetts Legislature to act.

On Tuesday, July 9, the state Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on a range of privacy proposals, the most important of which is the Electronic Privacy Act, which provides law enforcement agencies with the necessary boundaries for for phone, internet, and location tracking.

People in a democratic society should be able to understand very clearly how video, photos and information that the government collects about us is going to be used and who is going to be able to access it. We need to know that we won’t be targeted for speaking out in public or disagreeing with our government’s point of view. After all, that’s why the American colonists declared independence.

Passing privacy legislation is the best way for Americans to celebrate our nation’s rejecction of unchecked government power. If you haven’t already done so, sign the on-line petition urging Beacon Hill leaders to restore checks and balance to our Commonwealth.

It’s the patriotic thing to do.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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