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SurveillancePolice departments adopt sophisticated, cheap-to-operate surveillance technology

Published 21 October 2013

Advancements in surveillance technology have been adopted not only by the National Security Agency (N.S.A) or other federal intelligence agencies. Local police departments have also incorporated the latest surveillance technologies into their work, allowing them to track individuals for different purposes.

An array of surveillance cameras in Singapore // Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Advancements in surveillance technology have been adopted not only by the National Security Agency (N.S.A) or other federal intelligence agencies. Local police departments have also incorporated the latest surveillance technologies into their work, allowing them to track individuals for different purposes.

The New York Police Department has a data system which connects 3,000 surveillance cameras with license plate readers, radiation sensors, criminal databases, and terror suspect lists. The City of Oakland, California, as part of its Domain Awareness Center, is installing a system which integrates public and private cameras and sensors all over the city into a single, $10.9 million mass surveillance system.

The New Republic notes that cities are collecting and processing large amounts of data for routine law enforcement missions, but the ramifications of such capabilities go beyond law enforcement duties. Several law local enforcement agencies have access to technologies that can track an individual’s social media posts, or track an individuals’ whereabouts by keeping an eye on their use of commuter toll payments when they  uses an electronic pass.

The New York Times quotes Libby Schaaf, an Oakland City Council member, to say that because of the city’s high crime rate, “it’s our responsibility to take advantage of new tools that become available.” She added, though, that the Domain Awareness Center would be able to “paint a pretty detailed picture of someone’s personal life, someone who may be innocent.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California described Oakland’s program as “warrantless surveillance” and said “the city would be able to collect and stockpile comprehensive information about Oakland residents who have engaged in no wrongdoing.”

Privacy advocates question whether there is a system in place to checks control access to the private information collected, and rules to govern the use of such information – two questions which are especially important  at a time when surveillance technologies are becoming not only more sophisticated, but cheaper and simpler to install and operate.

 Proponents of the Domain Awareness Center in Oakland say it will help reduce the city’s high crime rates, but critics are concerned that the treasure trove of stored private information might be used unethically.

The New Republic notes that data-mining and processing are now offering big business opportunities for software companies. IBM has sold data-mining software to Las Vegas and Memphis. Microsoft built the technology for New York City’s surveillance program, and Leidos Holdings, formerly Science Applications International Corporation,will build Oakland’s surveillance system.

Some local and state level law enforcement departments have rejected advanced surveillance systems. Iowa City recently imposed a moratorium on license plate readers. The Virginia state attorney general declared that the state’s method of collecting and storing data, including data collected at political rallies, violated the state’s Government Data Collection and Dissemination Act. His decision led to the deletion of millions of license plates collected by surveillance cameras at political events.

Experts say that surveillance technology will only become more sophisticated and data collection capabilities will only advance. Government and the public must develop and improve existing rules for the management of data collected by law enforcement agencies in order to maintain privacy rights. Established rules must be adapted to new technologies and applicable across multiple jurisdictions for consistency.