Let There Be Light: Cities Across America Are Pushing Back Against Secret Surveillance by Police

Think about how it feels when you are driving down a road, look in your rearview mirror, and notice a police car driving directly behind you. You tense up. You slow down. You try not to drift too much in your lane as you drive. One false move and those red flashing lights will switch on. Only after the police car drives past can you finally relax and exhale. As internationally renowned security technologist Bruce Schneier observed in his book "Data and Goliath," this is what surveillance feels like. But for many Americans who live in communities that are disproportionately targeted by police surveillance technologies, that feeling never goes away. 

There is never a time to exhale.

Who are these disproportionately targeted communities? Not surprisingly, they are comprised of the same individuals who have traditionally been the targets of over-policing and over-surveillance: persons of color, of certain ethnicities and certain religions, of low-income, and those whose political activities challenge the status quo. In many of these targeted communities, attracting the attention of the police  — the likelihood of which is increased by the widespread deployment of surveillance technologies  is a no small matter. There is ample evidence on YouTube alone that drawing police attention — even for minor transgressions like selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island, New York or having a broken taillight in North Charleston, South Carolina — can lead to one’s arrest or even result in fatal consequences.

Always wondering if you are being watched, and if you may be moments away from a police encounter, produces constant anxiety. Living with that level of trepidation, like a police car is always driving right behind you, is no way to live. That is not freedom. 

The list of surveillance technologies currently being used by local law enforcement reads like something out of a George Orwell novel. You can learn about many of them in the ACLU’s newly released Technology 101 primer, but be forewarned: You may never walk the streets or surf the internet with the same feeling of anonymity again. You’ll learn that local police use cell site simulators (a.k.a. Stingrays) to capture information from our cell phones and track our location. Their automatic license plate readers and our own cars’ E-ZPass tokens enable them to track where we drive. They use light aircraft (and perhaps soon, drones) with high-definition cameras to watch us from the sky, while their closed circuit television cameras and surveillance-enabled light bulbs monitor us from the ground. Advanced hardware and computer software enable them to peer through the sides of our cars and through the walls of our homes, to hack into our electronic devices, and to monitor our activities online.  

All these technologies are coming soon to a city near you, if they are not there already.

Given the potential for controversy, local police forces have largely taken to acquiring and using surveillance technologies in secret. Of course, when the police conceal their use of surveillance technologies, they also greatly enhance their ability to conceal its misuse, such as using a surveillance technology without a properly obtained warrant or in a discriminatory manner. Just last month alone, two of these secret efforts were revealed in a single American city: Baltimore.

First, in a legal complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission, it was revealed that the Baltimore Police Department frequently deploys cell site simulators to track people’s locations and gather data from their phones and that these deployments are almost exclusively in Black neighborhoods. The following week, a report by Bloomberg News revealed that BPD was operating a secret program of using planes armed with ultra-high definition cameras to record the comings and goings of the entire city’s population without the public’s or their elected officials’ knowledge. Baltimore is hardly alone when it comes to disproportionately targeting communities of color with surveillance technologies. On those rare occasions when we have gotten our hands on local police surveillance data, the same biased practices are revealed, such as with ALPR deployments in Oakland and CCTV cameras in Lansing, Michigan

Living with that level of trepidation, like a police car is always driving right behind you, is no way to live. That is not freedom. 

Activists like Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice, have been talking about and fighting the discriminatory surveillance of Black Americans and other groups by local police for a very long time, and with good reason — the secret surveillance conducted by local police departments collectively impacts tens of millions of Americans. While that may not be exactly of the same magnitude as the NSA surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, it is certainly significant enough to warrant outrage and considerable media attention. Unfortunately, Cyril’s efforts have received nowhere near the same attention as Snowden’s. That must change. Cyril’s words, and those of the many other activists who have spoken out against discriminatory local surveillance, must be heeded more, discussed more, reported on more, and acted upon more.

And they will be.

Today, 17 diverse national organizations have joined together to voice our support for the guiding principles behind 11 cities’ efforts to stop the unchecked, secret, and too often discriminatory use of surveillance technologies by local police and to move their approval process out of the darkness and into the light. Each of these cities’ legislative efforts share a common focus on increasing transparency, ensuring communities have significant influence over the decision-making process, and empowering the public by providing them with full and accurate information about the cost of surveillance technologies and the potential risks they pose to civil rights and civil liberties.

If adopted, these bills will mandate that the public’s elected representatives, not the police, will decide if and when surveillance technologies are funded, acquired, or used. It will give local communities the chance to discuss, debate, and oppose these technologies before they become “facts on the ground” that are much harder to dislodge. And ultimately, should the people who walk a city’s streets and live in its neighborhoods determine the costs and risks of using a specific surveillance technology outweigh its benefits, these bills will maximize their ability to demand the surveillance technology’s use be severely limited or outlawed entirely. This is how it should be. Democracy, freedom, privacy, and equality are all sacred American principles. Surveillance is not.

When decisions regarding the use of surveillance technology are made transparently by the public and their democratically elected representatives, they are certain to be far more protective of these sacred principles than the secret decisions of the past. And should, as we expect, today’s local legislative efforts take hold and spread from city to city, so that today’s eleven city effort is just the first wave in a sea of municipal legislation, then one day all of us  regardless of our skin color, ethnicity, religion, income, or political views  might at long last be able to exhale a little, like the police car in our rearview mirror finally passed us by.

To learn more about the effort to promote community control over police surveillance, visit www.CommunityCTRL.com or search social media for the hashtag #TakeCTRL.

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Anonymous

I am a 73 year old Black man living in Houston Texas and this surveillance info has really struck a nerve with me.Long story and I am writing a book or warning about it.ACLU seems to be the forum to take any action about it.It is an unbelievable story.I will make a contribution in a few days.Thanks

LK

I'm dealing with all of this warrantless and illegal surveillance right now and have been for years. It's being done due to my divorcing a controlling Massachusetts police officer and rightfully reporting their abuses against me. This illegal surveillance has been directed at me since divorcing him and continues as I try to get justice for the police abuses and violations of my 1st, 4th, and 14the amendment rights. This group is currently going outside their jurisdictional boundaries of Massachusetts to continue these same abuses and illegal surveillance within my home and auto although I've moved to the State of New Hampshire. It's been done to me for many years and Massachusetts is ignoring all of my complaints.

Anonymous

Started in Massachusetts for me as well.I suspect the telecoms in collision w/LE thanks to GWBush's retroactive immunity grant to the telecoms.Derailed what used to be my life completely.R.F.spectrum being used as an offensive weapon system;in my case it affects me nationwide.Complained to Mass.A.G.,Mass.Statie Police. it's all on the hush,hush. #ThanksObama!

Anonymous

Same for me. This began when I divorced a police officer. A major campaign by law enforcement to discredit me began. I have been harassed, terrorized, assaulted, my home broken into, crimes committed against me by criminals with histories of violence, and no law enforcement officer would do anything to assist me. The level of crimes and horrible acts of violence these people will go to is ridiculous and absolutely disgusting. And the American people who will participate, to me, are traitors - committing terror against an innocent American for false loyalty. And they call themselves patriots. Joke.

Anonymous

Yep I'm spouse of controlling, cyberstalking phone tracking hacking govt official here in orange county California. I have had so many awful bad things happen to me and my family I don't know where to begin. Libelous flier written about me with full physical description of me my car my families businesses vehicles my address , a composite sketch wrongfully accusing me of attempting to rob a woman with knife , LiEs posted to my local city facebook, another sketch on website clearly of me with knife to my neck Father said get me affadavidt. I have gone through 2 dozen phones in past 3 years and since 2010 I have had my phones stolen swapped cloned hacked tracked and my Father's too and my Mom and family members monitored. Intimate Details of phone conversations and texts repeated back to me. Also after my life and my Father's lives threatened and Dad got sick with infection almost died I had private details that when it was me my Dad his doctor and nurses in his room some of those private conversations of medical issues to save my Dad's life were repeated back to me and my Dad's excruciating pain was movked. I had my car vandalized, my home robbed a necklace my parents gave me for graduation gift was stolen my diamond wedding ring stolen in June another phone my brother dad were so kind to lend me a flip phone was stolen and 2 of my car keys were also stolen. Recently I had 3 phones stolen from me with 2 given back and the phone I REALLY wanted back that said gaslight inside cover but I had tons of pictures and of my Grandpa who passed in beginning of March just in time for.

Anonymous

Yes the police can and will put you under their surveillance program, photograph,you harass and follow you and disseminate wrong information about you, only because they have a wrong idea about you, but they don't care. The surveillance a lot of it is of the low tech kind no tech kind i.e. the use of neighborhood snitches and watchers. These people can't help but spill the beans on what they "know" about you, so then you become the neighborhood pariah. It's very uncomfortable as you are able to accurately read the rude and or dismissive behavior of those around you. This is what happens when you are falsely accused, falsely profiled and you have no one who cares to defend or represent you as you don't have the monetary resources and so police nor attorney will care to listen to reason that would dispute the police' theory about you. Actually they don't care if their wrong they maintain their position in spite of everything proving the contrary. Once they have something in an official police report, they absolutely cannot amend their mistake. Do you think your plastic surgeon is god.? NO God is a cop, if you don't believe it take a good look.

Anonymous

My timeline shows some of the abuses as well as their corruption I've been trying to report. I filed a case in Federal Court but they dismissed it since I'm not an attorney and really don't know how to file correctly. I appealed that and now have to file a brief by Oct. 31 which I'm sure Ill screw up. I've no choice since the states are ignoring my hundreds of letters. facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009584360350

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