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Senate Finance sends surveillance definition bill to floor vote

Del. Rasoul listens
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Del. Sam Rasoul (D–Roanoke City) takes a moment to himself on the House floor on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024 at the Virginia State Capitol.

A bipartisan House of Delegates bill to define surveillance technology and study how law enforcement agencies in Virginia are using it is before the state Senate after stalling in the House.

“What we want to do is make sure that we're bringing a level of transparency,” said Del. Sam Rasoul (D–Roanoke), who sponsored the bill. “This is really a bipartisan bill, where we've had a number of different entities say, any surveillance technology that is being used, the public should know what types of technologies are being used to surveil them.”

The bill comes as the Democrat-controlled General Assembly has killed other bills that would regulate surveillance technology. A bill that put guardrails on the use of automated license plate readers failed in a Senate floor vote over concerns that the regulations were too lenient and would’ve expanded the technology’s use. House bills that would’ve set up best practices for the use of AI and the use of deepfakes in interrogation also died in committee early in the session.

The House Appropriations Committee tabled the Senate’s version of the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Mark Peake (R–Lynchburg). Rasoul’s bill is before the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.

“Surveillance technology”varies widely between law enforcement agencies in Virginia, which have different capabilities. The tech ranges from being able to access private video feeds, access cellphone data without warrants, and use facial recognition technology.

There were 339 law enforcement agencies in Virginia in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Agencies also differ in how they disclose to the public what technology is being used and at what scale. A Chesterfield Police chief refused to discuss his department’s surveillance capacity with the board of supervisors. Later, tech website 404 Media reported that Chesterfield County (population 378,408), had access to over 3,000 cameras through Fusus — a camera sharing technology — in addition to its own cameras.

The bill mandates an annual study by the Virginia Crime Commission covering surveillance impact on privacy and civil liberties, effectiveness, and potential for misuse. The study would be made available to the public.

That study would also address whether further legislation is needed to regulate surveillance technology, though the timeframe on that would mean related bills wouldn’t start until 2025's session at the earliest.

It doesn’t mandate the use of any particular technology or prohibit its use, according to Rasoul: “This is just making sure that we know what technology is being used, not speaking to what we can and cannot be using.”

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.
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