If you’ve been concerning yourself with the Heartbleed bug and the National Security Agency, you might as well have these seven items on your radar, too. Military-inspired technologies are coming home for use by local law enforcement.
Since 2001, federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security have been trickling to local authorities for counterterrorism efforts. But even years after 9/11, these agencies are shopping around for military-inspired surveillance tools that can keep watch on average citizens.
The rise of a surveillance state has raised questions about the legality of how law enforcement agencies acquire new technologies and inform the public of their use. Individual searches and seizures are protected under the Fourth Amendment, but laws addressing mass surveillance of the public are few and limited.
The Center for Investigative Reporting continues to uncover how technology is revolutionizing the way we’re being policed and what that means for our civil liberties. (Quick nonprofit plug: Back our Beacon Reader campaign to help sustain our reporting on this issue).
Here are some examples of surveillance technology that’s already in use:
1. Wide-area surveillance
CIR and KQED discovered that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department conducted a two-week experiment that attached cameras to a manned civilian aircraft (not a drone) without telling Compton residents. CIR reporter G.W. Schulz described it as “Google Earth with a rewind button and the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city.”
2. Facial recognition software
Military-grade facial recognition software has landed in San Diego County. Using a tablet, police can take a photo of your face and run it against a database of about 348,000 county arrestees. This pilot program also rolled out without any public hearing or notice.
3. License-plate scanners
A license-plate reader mounted on a San Leandro Police Department car can log thousands of plates in an eight-hour patrol shift. “It works 100 times better than driving around looking for license plates with our eyes,” says police Lt. Randall Brandt.
Credit: Michael Katz-Lacabe
While not a new technology, the increasing use of license-plate scanners is raising serious concerns about how that data is stored and who has access to it. One manufacturer, Vigilant Solutions, which also houses a massive private database of plate information, makes law enforcement agencies sign nondisclosure agreements.
4. Streetlights with recording capabilities
Credit: Illuminating Concepts screen shot
In Las Vegas, officials are using ordinary-looking streetlights with many talents. These Intellistreets, as they’re called by designer Illuminating Concepts, run on wireless Internet and can come equipped with add-ons that would allow you to record and shoot video. As of 2013, Las Vegas officials say they are not using these features – they just have the ability to do so.
5. Behavioral recognition software
Credit: RNCCTV screen shot
During the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, police used behavioral recognition software to amp up surveillance and security. The software uses camera footage to automate suspicious activity detection. To fight back, Jon Gales created an app to track where the cameras were located.
In California, multiple local agencies from the Bay Area to Sacramento have been using stingray technology to track and collect cellphone data in real time with precision. The ACLU describes a stingray as “a device that mimics a cell tower and thereby tricks all wireless devices on the same network into communicating with it.”News10 in Sacramento tried to find out which agencies in particular are using the device – all refused to disclose how they were using it, and some would not comment on whether they have it.
7. Intelligence analysis software
The Los Angeles Police Department already is using intelligence analysis tools from Palantir, a Silicon Valley-based firm that makes data-mining software and is partially funded by the CIA. The department did not comment on its use of the intelligence program to LA Weekly, but officials explain how they use Palantir on a daily basis in a video testimonial: