American Civil Liberties Union

Op-Ed Contributor: When It Comes to Surveillance, Watch the Watchmen

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One such device, the StingRay, mimics a cell-tower and allows law enforcement to track targets’ phones. This lets them collect information about people’s whereabouts and their communication metadata. A Freedom of Information Law request by the New York Civil Liberties Union revealed that from 2008 to May 2015 the New York Police Department used StingRays more than 1,000 times. The A.C.L.U. has identified 72 federal agencies in 24 states and the District of Columbia that have StingRays.

Facial recognition is another troubling surveillance technology whose use is on the rise. Half of American adults are already in a law enforcement facial recognition network. Merged with police body camera technology, facial recognition could facilitate increased surveillance and the erosion of the anonymity most citizens assume when they go about their business. The New York Police Department’s body camera policy, which was adopted after consulting with the public, does not prohibit the use of facial recognition.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn, a technology and policy research group, last year examined the body camera policies of 51 police departments across the country, including those in Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston. Of the 51 departments, none put strict limits on the merger of facial recognition and body camera technology, and only six departments had even partial limitations in place.

Americans should be aware of the rules governing this type of surveillance in their jurisdiction. It’s one thing to be identified by the police once you’re detained; it’s another for the police to be able to identify you at a distance without having to say a word to you.

This use of facial recognition could potentially have a stifling effect on First Amendment-protected activity such as protests. Citizens may be less willing to take part if they think the police are able to catalog their participation and see where else they’ve appeared in public.

The same concern applies to drones, which, although still comparatively rare, will also be a regular part of police departments’ tool kits soon. The New York Police Department has in the past strongly resisted calls for information about its drone records.

Americans care about this. Analysis of online behavior suggests, unsurprisingly, that some changed their online search behavior after Edward Snowden’s revelations that the National Security Agency had engaged in widespread internet surveillance.

The relationship between security and liberty is often described as a balancing act. This act can’t take place if we’re not informed about the technology used to safeguard our security.

That’s why, when it comes to surveillance technology, the American people should demand to know whether the police are spying on them. At the moment, those who are suspected of being Muslim extremists are prime targets, and innocent people caught in this effort face immediate concerns. In the past, Communists, civil rights leaders, feminists, Quakers, folk singers, war protesters and others have been on the receiving end of law enforcement surveillance.

No one knows who the next target will be. What we do know is that it’s difficult to put surveillance equipment back in the box it came from.

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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