Why These 11 Cities Are Pushing Back Against Secret Police Surveillance

By Kenrya Rankin Sep 21, 2016

As local law enforcement agencies appear to increasingly employ hidden surveillance technology in communities of color, activists and legislators in 11 cities have bound together to force transparency in policing.

Spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in partnership with 16 other civil rights organizations, the Community Control Over Police Surveillance effort launched today (September) with local advocates committed to pushing legislation that will soon be introduced in 11 cities: Hattiesburg (Miss.), Madison, Miami Beach, Milwaukee, Muskegon (Mich.), New York City, Palo Alto, Pensacola, Richmond (Va.), Seattle and Washington, D.C.

The movement’s website, CommunityCTRL.com, offers some insight on the purpose of the initiative: “The proliferation in local police departments’ use of surveillance technology, which in most places has occurred without any community input or control, presents significant threats to civil rights and civil liberties that disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities. The nationwide Community Control Over Police Surveillance effort is looking to change that through legislation mandating that local communities are given a meaningful opportunity to review and participate in all decisions about if and how surveillance technologies are acquired and used locally.”

The coalition also published a report that details the new wave of technology being employed in communities of color, both for private citizens and activists working with coalitions like The Movement for Black Lives. It includes:

Stingrays: The device mimics a cell phone communications tower, causing your cell phone to communicate with it. This communications link gives the Stingray the ability to track your location and intercept data from your phone, including voice and typed communications.

Automatic License Plate Readers: Mobile or fixed-location cameras that are used to take photographs of license plates, digitize them, and then store, process and search captured data in real time or over the course of months or even years.

Electronic Toll Readers or E-ZPass Plate Readers: Although the devices are sold as toll-payment devices, they are frequently used for non-toll purposes without the badge holder’s knowledge or permission.

Closed-Circuit Television Cameras: They are frequently used by the police to monitor communities remotely.

Biometric Surveillance Technology: No longer limited to fingerprints and DNA, publicly known traits such as a person’s face or voice can now be run against Department of Motor Vehicle, social network and other databases to secretly identify and track almost every American. Biometric surveillance technology includes facial, voice, iris, and gait-recognition software and databases.

Gunshot Detection and Location Hardware and Services: While gunshot detectors have a useful law enforcement application, concerns arise from what the devices actually are: microphones that can be used to listen in on a community remotely.

X-Ray Vans: The mobile technology uses x-ray radiation to see what no human eye can, such as underneath clothing and car exteriors. An investigative report has shown that these machines may expose people “to ionizing radiation, which can mutate DNA and increase the risk of cancer.”

Surveillance Enabled Light Bulbs: LED surveillance light bulbs, which are presented as energy efficient upgrades to existing incandescent light bulbs, can actually conceal tiny cameras and microphones that can stealthily monitor their surroundings and transmit their feeds back to a central monitoring station.

Hacking Software and Hardware: These tools allow law enforcement officials or other government actors to gain access to a person’s personal computing equipment (including laptops and cell phones) and password-protected websites or accounts (like cloud storage or social media accounts).

Social Media Monitoring Software: This software can be used to covertly monitor, collect and analyze individuals’ social media data from platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Through-The-Wall Sensors: This technology uses radar or similar technology to peer through walls of a building.

Police Body Cameras: This wearable video and audio recording technology captures police interactions with the public from an angle approximating a police officer’s point of view.

Predictive Policing Software: Predictive policing software uses mathematical and analytical techniques to attempt to predict future criminal activity, offenders and victims.

While the legislation introduced in each city will be tailored to meet the needs of the local community, it will consistently be centered around eight guiding principles:

  1. Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired, or used without express city council approval.
  2. Local communities should play a significant and meaningful role in determining if and how surveillance technologies are funded, acquired or used.
  3. The process for considering the use of surveillance technologies should be transparent and well-informed.
  4. The use of surveillance technologies should not be approved generally; approvals, if provided, should be for specific technologies and specific, limited uses.
  5. Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired or used without addressing their potential impact on civil rights and civil liberties.
  6. Surveillance technologies should not be funded, acquired or used without considering their financial impact.
  7. To verify legal compliance, surveillance technology use and deployment data should be reported publicly on an annual basis.
  8. City council approval should be required for all surveillance technologies and uses; there should be no “grandfathering” for technologies currently in use.

Learn more about the initiative here.