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Maine’s Police Surveillance-Tech Transparency Bill Advances

The state bill would still allow police agencies to keep sensitive investigation information secret, but it would require them to release information about the type, cost and protection protocols of technology usage.

(TNS) — A bill aimed at lifting the shroud of secrecy covering police surveillance tools and their role in investigations of Maine citizens advanced Monday after members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee overwhelmingly recommended passage.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D- Hallowell, introduced the measure about a year ago after the Maine Sunday Telegram reported on Feb. 9, 2020, that state police are relying on a provision in Maine law to withhold information about whether they are using technologies capable of mass surveillance of citizens.

Warren's bill was delayed for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after it was proposed, Maine's public safety commissioner, Michael Sauschuck, acknowledged for the first time that state police use facial recognition scans as part of some criminal investigations, but did not provide written policies or details about how the technology is used.

Facial recognition technology can map an individual's facial features using a high-resolution digital image or surveillance video, creating a unique profile similar to a fingerprint. The profile is then compared to the faces in existing databases, such as those that contain driver's licenses, state IDs, immigration records, passport photos or police mug shots.

Sauschuck defended the practice in a written statement issued last year to the Maine Sunday Telegram, saying the agency does not use the technology to "conduct 'surveillance', 'spying', tracking or monitoring of the general public or individuals not suspected of criminal activity." However, he did not provide written policies or details about how the technology is used. Sauschuck's statement stressed that police only conduct facial recognition searches after a crime has been committed and a suspect's image was captured by a home or commercial security system. He said neither the state police nor the Maine Information and Analysis Center spies on innocent people.

Government use of such technologies to investigate crimes or monitor citizens is a growing source of concern around the country and the world, both because of legal concerns and a high error rate when trying to identify people of color and women.

During a Monday work session, committee members voted 9-2 in support of L.D. 894, "An Act to Increase Government Accountability by Removing the Restriction on the Dissemination of Information Regarding Investigations." Sen. Scott Cyrway, a Republican from Albion, and Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, a Republican from Fairfield, cast the lone dissenting votes.

Although there was no discussion during the work session, written testimony regarding L.D. 894 was presented to the committee. Warren, the Maine County Commissioners Association, the Criminal Law Advisory Commission, and the Maine Sheriff's Association all weighed in. Warren also serves as House Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee.

"This legislation is both necessary and overdue. For several years now, Maine has been the only state with a draconian law that shrouds government processes in secrecy," Warren wrote.

If the bill passes, police agencies would still be allowed to keep sensitive investigatory information secret under the state's public records law.

Warren's bill, however, would eliminate the so-called Glomar provision in the law that has been cited as a reason to withhold information about what type of technologies police are deploying, how much money is being spent on the technologies, and what policies are in place to prevent misuse and protect the privacy of innocent people, Warren said.

"Requiring law enforcement to neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of something like facial recognition technology, or methods to track everyone who has a cellphone, threatens the very core of our democracy," Warren said in her testimony. "We cannot control, or debate, or assess or reject what we don't know. We deserve the right to know what we don't know."

"Our current Glomar law threatens to turn law enforcement entities from trusted partners in securing public safety into a secretive Big Brother, who never reveals its methods to taxpayers. Mainers deserve better," Warren said.

But Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, who is also president of the Maine Sheriff's Association, in written testimony said his colleagues in law enforcement are opposed to L.D. 894, and believe the unintentional consequences of the bill could be "catastrophic." Morton said that victims of sexual assault and domestic violence come forward with the expectation that they can speak freely during an investigation.

"L.D. 894, as written, would remove any confidential information that is shared with law enforcement," Morton wrote. "These victims could find themselves in jeopardy if their private details fall into the wrong hands. Without protections, we are removing the safety net that these vulnerable populations depend on to end their abuse."

" Maine sheriffs support the shift to more accountability for law enforcement as we embrace the mantra, the truth shall set you free, but L.D. 894 is not the solution," Morton said.

(c)2021 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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