In the summer of 2022, Good Systems generously supported three undergraduate students to work with the Being Watched team. We were pleased to have Helen Kang (Informatics ’25), Abha Misaqi (Economics ’25), and Zak Turner (Mechanical Engineering ’23) working on various aspects of the project tailored to their own research interests. In this research blog post, Zak Turner provided a summary of his deep dive into the surveillance ordinances of five U.S. cities.


During the latter half of the 2010s, towns and cities across the country began passing surveillance ordinances aimed at restricting the unfettered expansion of surveillance technology. The origin of these ordinances can be traced to the Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) initiative which the ACLU launched in September 2016. In the initiative, the ACLU decries the turning low-income and minority neighborhoods into “open air prisons, where residents’ public behavior is monitored and scrutinized 24 hours a day”. According to the ACLU, CCOPS gained exigency twice-over: after the election of Donald Trump in November 2016, as well as after the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests during the summer of 2020. Both of these events entailed the widespread use of surveillance technology, whether through information sharing with ICE or the monitoring of Black Lives Matter protests. This wider environment of civil pushback against increasingly intrusive state surveillance is key to understanding the context in which municipalities spanning both coasts decided that they had had enough with the unchecked power to surveil. What follows is a more specific analysis of the key actors, events and institutions involved in passing surveillance ordinances in their respective towns.

Madison, Wisconsin

Madison was one of the first municipalities in the country to discuss passing a surveillance ordinance. A Madison city Subcommittee on Police and Community Relations had been working with the ACLU on a legislative draft at least as far back as January 2017. Furthermore, residents and city-council alders raised concerns that surveillance cameras in public domains “had the capability of rotating, zooming and recording video of private spaces”. 12 months later, in December 2017, the city inaugurated the President’s Work Group to Develop City-Wide Surveillance and Data Management Policies. The Work Group was charged with, among other things, using the lens of racial and social-justice to create policies governing the use and acquisition of surveillance technology. Additionally, the Work Group drafted the ordinance with reference to the “privacy interests” of residents. Although it was not until after the police killing of George Floyd that Madison finally passed its surveillance ordinance in June 2020, it appears that the ordinance had been in the works for years prior. The effort to codify the ordinance into law can be attributed to the proactiveness of various stakeholders such as the city council, residents with privacy concerns, and the ACLU. 

Yellow Springs, Ohio

As perhaps the smallest of the municipalities being examined, the story of Yellow Springs’ surveillance ordinance is probably the most difficult to piece together. Signed into law in November 2018, the bill specifically mentions the impact of surveillance technology on civil liberties and constitutional protections. Like many other municipalities, there appears to be no direct incident that would have incited the need for such an ordinance. Rather, this was a proactive effort spearheaded by Ellis Jacobs, a local civil rights attorney serving on the town’s Justice System Task Force subcommittee and working in tandem with the ACLU. Jacobs emphasized that the bill would increase transparency in town, adding that the people of Yellow Springs would never be “surprised that the police department has adopted surveillance technology without them knowing about it”. A comparative study of towns that had passed surveillance ordinances corroborated that the bills “appeared to be a smaller, concerted effort between a local civil rights attorney, local ACLU affiliate representatives, and the municipal solicitor”.

Grand Rapids, Michigan

 In Grand Rapids, a more coherent narrative leading to the adoption of a surveillance ordinance appears. The initial surveillance technology acquisition policy was created in 2015 when “local ACLU members and community partners began reporting concerns about police and city use of personal information

Then, in late 2020, Grand Rapids police wanted to “purchase gunfire detection technology called ShotSpotter” which critics say violates their personal privacy and is a reactive, rather than preventive, approach to crime. In response, officials at the NAACP began agitating for an update to the 2015 policy. Furthermore, 278 emails and 2 dozen calls were registered by the town from residents of Grand Rapids protesting the acquisition of ShotSpotter, in addition to the institutional support from the NAACP and other, like-minded organizations. The changes pushed for by the NAACP would reallocate resources to programs designed to: prevent crimes, establish a Community Advisory Committee that works with police on decisions to acquire new technology, and remove a clause that allows police to acquire new surveillance technology without city approval under “exigent circumstances. The measure passed in January 2022, thus further restricting the ability of police to acquire surveillance technology in response to the public uproar over ShotSpotter.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

On December 10, 2018, Cambridge became the 2nd city in Massachusetts to adopt a surveillance ordinance. According to the Cambridge City website, the ordinance was a result of “extensive work between the City Council, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Cambridge residents, and City staff”. The goal of the ordinance was to provide a better balance of the trade-offs between public safety and civil-liberties, such as a right to privacy, which surveillance technology inherently erodes. Unlike the Grand Rapids case, there does not appear to be a specific, local trigger event that led to the adoption of the ordinance. Rather, it was a proactive effort on the part of the previously mentioned community stakeholders. Indeed, the idea of a surveillance ordinance was first proposed by then-Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons in late November 2016, shortly after the election of Donald Trump. When the bill was first brought for public discussion, City Hall was allegedly “packed with supporters of…ordinance restricting police surveillance”. The bill’s final version too fit within the model provided by the CCOPS initiative organized by the national ACLU.

Somerville, Massachusetts

In 2017, then-Mayor of Summerville, Joseph Curatone, signed the Executive Policy on Surveillance Technology. This policy, which was enacted via executive powers, was intended to create “greater transparency and controls on potentially invasive technologies such as surveillance cameras”​​. ACLU Massachusetts representative Kade Crockford stated that the policy ensured that “new technologies don’t get out ahead of our rights”. Two years later, in November 2019, Somerville City Council unanimously approved an updated surveillance ordinance. According to the Privacy SOS organization, “City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen led the charge to pass the new law, with the support of the ACLU, local residents, his colleagues on the City Council, and Mayor Joe Curtatone’s office”. What began as a mayoral initiative with the 2017 policy evolved “into a more robust and democratic governance system in Somerville” with the passage in City Council of a new surveillance ordinance.