COS-DC: Fighting Government Surveillance

Across Washington, D.C, local government agencies acquire and use sophisticated surveillance technology with no public oversight or accountability. This gap in current law means significant decisions about surveillance are happening in secret – without meaningful discussion about the direct threat to the civil liberties of all District residents and the disproportionate impact on communities of color and low-income communities.

COS-DC is a broad coalition of local groups and activists working to end the unchecked surveillance of D.C. communities by local agencies – including law enforcement – and to ensure that D.C. residents have a say in whether, what, and how surveillance technology is acquired and used in the District.

We’re working to pass legislation that would require transparency, meaningful public input, and D.C. Council approval for all government uses of surveillance technology.

The Problem: Unchecked Surveillance Technology

Modern surveillance technologies can collect sensitive information about our private lives without our knowledge or consent. Technologies such as drones, license plate readers, video cameras, and online monitoring software can easily be misused to discriminate, invade privacy, and chill First Amendment freedoms.

The acquisition and deployment of surveillance technology by local police and other government agencies, which often occurs in secret, results in the collection of sensitive information about the lives of D.C. residents that is ripe for misuse. Databases generated by these technologies are vulnerable to breach and other exploitation efforts, including by agencies like ICE.

Communities that are already overpoliced–including Black and Brown communities, low-income communities, Muslim communities, immigrant communities, LGBTQ communities, and political activist groups—face the greatest threats to their civil rights.

And new surveillance technologies are becoming available every day. Simply put, the law hasn’t kept up with advancements in technology—and our civil rights and civil liberties are put at risk as a result.

The Solution: Increased D.C. Council and Community Oversight

Real public safety demands that D.C. residents have a voice in decisions about whether and how they are surveilled.

The Community Oversight of Surveillance for Washington, D.C. (COS-DC) legislation provides a viable path for the D.C. Council and public to engage with decisions about proper use of modern surveillance technology.

The legislation ensures that decisions about their use are made with thoughtful consideration and buy-in from the public and elected lawmakers, and that the operation of approved technologies will be subject to rules that safeguard residents’ rights and provide transparency. The bill has several components, including:

  • Creating a transparent and public process for considering surveillance technology proposals by requiring that all acquisition and use of such technologies by D.C. agencies be subject to Council approval following a public hearing.
  • Requiring that agencies create written rules for use of surveillance technologies and submit the rules to the D.C. Council for approval. These include surveillance impact reports that explain how a technology works and will impact the community, and surveillance use policies that set out specific guidelines for the technology’s use by the agency.
  • Creating a privacy advisory group to advise and help inform both D.C. agencies and the Council on civil rights and civil liberties risks of specific surveillance technologies and their use in the District.
  • Requiring periodic assessments and annual evaluation of the District’s use of surveillance technology to ensure that costs–both to residents and to their rights–do not outweigh any potential benefits, and to assess whether D.C.’s use of surveillance technology furthers public safety goals.

Find more information about COS-DC at