Do surveillance innovations help law enforcement officials do a better job in policing the populace, or do they create an unwarranted intrusion into the personal privacy of citizens? That seems to be the question at the center of the growing tension between tech development and civil rights that continues to play out in Washington, DC and in communities across America.
Take, for example, a story recently reported in The Washington Post about the response to a police call to a domestic abuse situation in Fresno, CA. Before sending police onto the scene, operators ran information about the alleged perpetrator through a kind of background check software scanning data such as arrest reports, property records and even social media posts from the alleged perpetrator. A high threat level generated by this background check encouraged law enforcement to send a negotiator, which turned out to be the proper move as the suspect did have a gun on hand.
The software program in question, known as Beware, is developed and marketed by Longmont, CO-based emergency communication services firm Intrado. Beware is accessible through fixed or mobile browsers and is designed to augment public safety personnel protocols and procedures in response to a call for emergency services. This is only one of Intrado’s emergency call response tech solutions, which also include 9-1-1 texting services and mobile emergency communication center modules.
One piece of police surveillance tech that has been getting a fair amount of attention from the mainstream media and privacy activists is the Stingray, also referred to as cell site simulators or International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers. Stingray devices are implemented by law enforcement agencies to serve as a mobile fake cell phone tower to intercept phone calls made on a suspect’s cell phone within a certain vicinity. These IMSI catchers can be installed in a police vehicle to intercept call data which, along with distance data collected by a separate antenna, informs police of a phone’s real-time position. Reports indicate that these cell site simulators are used in every aspect of law enforcement from anti-terrorism activities to tracking petty criminals. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a total of 58 law enforcement agencies from 23 states and the District of Columbia have been identified as owning Stingrays, although the actual total could be higher. Documents released by the Department of Justice indicate that the devices are capable of updating a cell phone’s firmware in a way that would allow police to bug a phone and listen in on phone calls.
Biometrics, or the analysis of human characteristics often used for recognition purposes, is another area of technological innovation where innovation in law enforcement is active. Software for recognizing the faces of potential suspects as well as suspicious situations, such as an unattended car or bag in a public area, are finding applications especially in areas with high foot traffic or public transportation locations. In California, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System has installed a system known as Avigilon that provides video monitoring of public transit platforms and parking lots. The HD video recording system incorporates digital zooming features and video playback, giving transit officials a greater ability to support rider safety.
The city of San Diego is also working to better monitor public schools through the use of video surveillance innovations. In December 2012, the city’s police department announced that about 1,000 video cameras had been set up across 70 public school campuses in the city for an initiative designed to improve the safety of students at those schools. Video feeds from these cameras would be accessible from computer equipment installed in city police patrol cars.
The use of video analytics to address public safety concerns is not purely an American pursuit. In Singapore, the city’s government has partnered with management consulting services company Accenture to integrate a Safe City Solutions program into the city’s digital architecture. Advanced video analytics offered by the program has been used by the government there to predict crowd behavior during events and coordinate resources from various agencies to respond to incidents. The software can estimate crowd size, provide real-time GPS tracking of officials monitoring the crowd and also scans social media posts to detect abnormal activity.
Data mining and predictive analytics designed to enhance the decision making process for law enforcement officials have been utilized in Richmond, VA, for more than a decade now. These techniques can provide police officers with predictions of high crime areas that can be reviewed prior to starting a shift when used in conjunction with a geographic information system (GIS). Using this digital platform for predictive crime analytics, Richmond saw a greater than 20 percent reduction in major crimes between 2005 and 2006 while reducing its standing among the most dangerous cities in America. Similar data mining and analytics systems put in place by police in the city of Memphis, TN, have had a similar payoff, helping to reduce serious crime in that city by 31 percent in the four years between 2006 and 2010. That city’s Blue CRUSH predictive analytics system was developed in partnership with the University of Memphis’ criminal justice department using software developed by American tech giant IBM (NYSE:IBM).
The sharing of data among law enforcement agencies is important to make sure that every organization has the information it needs to respond to developing situations. In California’s San Diego and Imperial counties, more than 80 local, state and federal agencies collaborate through the Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS). The ARJIS system serves as a regional hub for officer notifications and the real-time uploading of public safety data that can be used across jurisdictions. Resources that have been made publicly available through ARJIS include crime data extracts summarizing criminal activity over the previous 180 days as well as regional crime maps for those two Southern California counties.
Here on IPWatchdog, we’ve previously discussed the potential that facial recognition software has in identifying persons of interest as a counterterrorism measure. Last November, the British city of Leicestershire received a favorable response from a local ethics committee for an innovative facial recognition system. Leicestershire police have established a database of facial images for detainees in police custody which is used as a reference when investigating crime scene images; the police department maintains that the database is only used for identification purposes and not to collect information which is presented at trial.
Closed-circuit television (CCTV) is already deployed throughout cities in such a way that most pedestrians aren’t supposed to notice but a new type of video surveillance technology would be even less obvious. Illuminating Concepts, a tech firm based in Farmington Hills, MI, has created a smart streetlight product referred to as Intellistreets. The Intellistreet design includes speakers for playing music or announcements, wireless transceivers for Internet connectivity as well as image sensors for pedestrian counting or homeland security applications. In recent years, the city of Las Vegas has invested in Intellistreet technology.
Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) has been used by law enforcement agencies for a couple of decades to scan license plates for recognition, but innovations are still being pursued. In England, the city of Gloucester has recently invested in ANPR technologies that will be installed in multi level parking ramps throughout the city. Thanks to open source software solutions from developers like GitHub, users can download applications that allow them to turn any IP-enabled camera into a license plate reader. There are only a handful of states that have laws on the books, or even proposed legislation, that would regulate the public’s ability to use such technologies.
Enhancements in surveillance innovations used by law enforcement officials have understandably led to a fair amount of concerns over the willingness of the data being tracked by police agencies. The ACLU in particular has been outspoken against the use of police surveillance technologies; the group was vocal in its opposition to the Fresno Police Department for the agency’s aforementioned use of Intrado Beware software. The agency is supportive of the use of body-mounted cameras on police, however, as it argues that it serves the purpose of preventing police officials from abusing their power. Some cities have attempted to provide civilian oversight of police surveillance activities as a means of ensuring that civilian privacy concerns are properly vetted. For example, in New York City, a recent settlement over a case of unwarranted surveillance has resulted in the creation a civilian monitor position to oversee the police use of surveillance technologies to prevent unfair targeting of certain communities.