- A new database reveals the extensive surveillance network used by law enforcement agencies across the US to keep an eye on citizens.
- The Atlas of Surveillance, a joint effort between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and students from the University of Nevada Reno, maps more than 5,300 cases of surveillance tech deployed by state and local police.
- Law enforcement has grown increasingly reliant on tools like facial recognition software, AI-powered video analysis, and licence plate readers, enriching the companies behind them in the process.
- But recent protests against police brutality have fuelled renewed criticism of surveillance tech and its potential civil-rights violations and bias against people of colour.
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Despite Americans’ reverence for freedom and liberty, it’s virtually impossible for even law-abiding citizens to avoid being constantly watched by their government. And law enforcement agencies, aided by newer and more advanced technologies, are keeping a closer eye on them than ever before.
There are 50 million security cameras in the US – one for every six people, more per capita than in China – according to Precise Security. A government watchdog found the FBI’s facial recognition database contains more than 641 million images. Axon Enterprise, the nation’s largest supplier of body cameras, recently told investors that the company is eyeing an $US11 billion market.
And in a recent privacy assessment, the US Customs and Border Protection acknowledged that it’s “unrealistic” for Americans to avoid being tracked by its network of licence plate readers.
That’s especially true when the opaque and often invisible nature of surveillance technology makes it difficult for Americans to understand when and how extensively they’re being monitored.
But a new, first-of-its-kind project aims to help demystify the government’s reach. The Atlas of Surveillance, a crowdsourced database compiled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and hundreds of students from the University of Nevada Reno, uses publicly available information to map state and local law enforcement agencies’ use of surveillance technologies across the US.
Previously, researchers and journalists have typically focused on identifying either which technologies are used by a specific agency like the New York Police Department, or which agencies are using a specific technology, such as facial recognition software.
However, EFF’s database is unique in that it maps the use of 12 different tools – including facial recognition, licence plate readers, body cameras, fake mobile phone towers, gunshot detectors, and drones – across nearly 4,000 police departments. By doing so, it paints a more comprehensive picture of at least 5,300 cases of surveillance tech being deployed nationwide.
“It’s a little overwhelming to look at but that’s because the surveillance state is overwhelming,” Dave Maass, a senior researcher at EFF and visiting professor at UNR who led the project, told Business Insider.
Maass said it’s particularly concerning “how all of these individual technologies are converging together.” At digital command hubs called real-time crime centres, everything from social media posts to camera footage is analysed live by “a sophisticated algorithm” and shared with multiple agencies in order to help them identify potential crimes and allocate resources, he said.
While the database is far from complete and will be continually updated, Maass said EFF decided to release it now given the renewed spotlight on surveillance technology amid recent protests against police brutality.
“People are protesting, they’re noticing the body-worn cameras, they’re noticing the strange trucks driving around with weird equipment in the back, they’re noticing drones flying above,” Maass said. “People are starting to realise as they’re out on the street and they’re having more interactions with police that technology matters.”
Civil rights and privacy advocates, including EFF, have been sounding alarms about surveillance technology for years. They have cited concerns like body cameras’ potential chilling effects on free speech at protests and a growing body of research showing that tools like facial recognition software and predicting policing algorithms discriminate based on race and gender and exacerbate existing inequalities in the criminal justice system – let alone scant evidence that these tools actually help keep communities safe.
As public opinion has shifted around policing, pressure has also mounted on the companies that supply surveillance tech to address flaws in their products or cut ties with law enforcement entirely. Last month, Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM bowed demands from employees and activists and agreed to pause sales of their facial recognition tools to law enforcement.