11 cities plan to force cops to disclose secret surveillance technologies used

11 cities have had enough of secret police surveillance and launched the “Community Control Over Police Surveillance” initiative.

surveillance wall of monitors
Credit: Gerd Altmann

Today, 11 cities have had enough secret police surveillance that they are kicking off legislative efforts to push for greater transparency and community control over that surveillance. These cities, spread across the nation, are part of the “Community Control Over Police Surveillance” initiative; together, they are sending a strong message: “The secret, unchecked local use of surveillance technologies, which threatens our fundamental civil rights and civil liberties, is no longer acceptable.”

“TakeCTRL” is a nationwide push for the people, not the police, to take control of what surveillance is used. “In most cities, the rapidly growing use of local surveillance technologies, which are regularly acquired in secret and used in secret, is unchecked,” the ACLU wrote. “It is not uncommon for a city’s elected officials to be unaware of what surveillance technologies have been deployed by their police. This must stop.”

The first 11 participating cities to push for legislation to give them a “meaningful opportunity to review and participate in all decisions about if and how surveillance technologies are acquired and used locally” are: Washington D.C.; New York, N.Y.; Palo Alto, California; Seattle, Washington; Richmond, Virginia; Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin; Miami Beach and Pensacola, Florida; Muskegon, Michigan; and Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

11 cities to force cops to disclose secret surveillance technologies used ACLU

More cities are expected to join the TakeCTRL effort in coming weeks.

Examples of secret surveillance technologies: Stingrays, biometrics, hacking

What kind of surveillance do they want to review and help decide if it should be used or even purchased? The kind that could be used to secretly violate your civil rights and liberties. The ACLU lists a plethora of secret surveillance technologies and the associated dangers.

Do you know if your city or town uses surveillance LED light bulbs? The light bulbs may be presented as an energy efficient upgrade, but they can “actually conceal tiny cameras and microphones that can stealthily monitor their surroundings and transmit their feeds back to a central monitoring station.” If the use of such LEDs were to become commonplace, then you might as well forget about privacy. The ACLU warned, “Mass adoption of the technology would throw surveillance nets of almost unprecedented scope over entire communities or cities.”

Do you know if your local law enforcement is using hacking tools to remotely spy on you via your private computer? Do you know if the government is surveilling your phone, cloud storage or social media accounts?

Even if your phone or PC hasn’t been hacked by law enforcement, is the government using software to “covertly monitor, collect, and analyze” what you say online in social media? Social media monitoring may be used geographically to track people and their relationships to others, or the monitoring can be based on keywords. The ACLU said it casts nets so wide it “encompasses the entire internet” and “has the potential to drastically discourage free speech.”

Hopefully none of those social posts are flagged by predictive policing software which attempts to predict future criminal activity, offenders and victims.

Biometric surveillance “can now be run against Department of Motor Vehicle, social network, and other databases to secretly identify and track almost every American.” When combined with CCTV, it can “reconstruct anyone’s travel history.”

The TakeCTRL initiative intends to find out if police are using cell-site simulators such as Stingrays; the tech collects info about the target as well as information “about hundreds or thousands of other phones and their users.”

Electronic toll readers like E-ZPass may be sold as toll-payment devices, but the ACLU said they are “frequently used to non-toll purposes with the badge holder’s knowledge or permission.” Since it can be read wherever there is a RFID receiver, it “enables the government to develop detailed tracking databases.”

Automatic license plate readers, or ALPRs, also make it possible for the government to track your movements. Like with E-ZPass and other surveillance, the data collected can be stored for long periods of time.

Gunshot detectors, such as ShotSpotter, listen for gunshots; but if the microphones are secretly used to remotely listen in on a community, then that is a form of “general mass surveillance.”

If governments are using vans fitted with mobile x-ray technology, such as Z Backscatter vans, in non-emergency situations without a warrant, scanning vehicles, pedestrians and innocent bystanders, then “that would be a major constitutional violation.”

If law enforcement is using radar or a similar technology which can see into buildings and through walls, was a warrant obtained first? Otherwise, the ACLU said it “may increasingly be deployed as an improper tool for looking into private homes without court oversight.”

You may think police body cams are a good thing, but the ACLU warned that without the right policies in place, the wearable body cameras “can be turned from a transparency and accountability tool into a police propaganda and mass surveillance tool.”

The EFF, Fight for the Future, Restore the Fourth, the ACLU and a wide range of organizations are supporting the TakeCTRL effort. Some of the guiding principles for the Community Control Over Police Surveillance suggest the tech shouldn’t be purchased without approval, without a public debate, or be used by police without transparency. And that does not just apply to new surveillance tech, but also for technologies already in use. Grandfathered spying tech should be discontinued if it has not been “expressly approved pursuant to a transparent, community-focused process.”

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