Heavy citywide surveillance may be giving authorities too much information to sift through.
In light of Thursday’s attacks in Nice, some prominent U.S. Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, have called for increased surveillance of mosques and internet chatter, and even for a religious test for Muslim Americans.
These suggestions have more than a few flaws. But specifically, calls for more surveillance in the U.S. miss the fact that Nice’s massive surveillance apparatus, one of the foremost in the country, failed to stop these attacks—as did enhanced powers for French police, which human rights groups say have disproportionately affected Muslim communities.
Nice has been called “The CCTV Capital of France” and has been steadily expanding its street-surveillance capacity. Today, 1,256 cameras are installed across the city, up from just 220 in 2007, including one in every tram car. This footage is collected and gathered by the city’s Urban Supervision Center, where 70 officials attempt to detect abnormalities, such as suspicious packages, and track major public events, such as demonstrations and festivals.
The CCTV footage is undoubtedly useful in investigations after events occur. According to the center’s website, its footage has helped make nearly 3,000 arrests as of January, 2016. (The center opened in 2010.)
But according to Kade Crockford, a privacy-rights coordinator with the Massachusetts ACLU, mass-surveillance programs can actually hurt authorities’ capacity to prevent terrorist attacks.
“Dragnet surveillance … doesn’t stop terrorism, nor does CCTV monitoring. That has been shown time and time again after the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks,” Crockford tells CityLab. “There is too much information in the counterterrorism program architecture, and people are overwhelmed. They don’t have capacity to analyze all of it. They’re essentially drowning in garbage.”
French President Francois Hollande has extended the nation’s state of emergency, which was put in place after the November 2015 Paris attacks, and allows police to raid homes and place individuals under house arrest without judicial authorization. French intelligence officials have concluded that the state of emergency has had little impact on French security.
French police have a historically fraught relationship with the country’s Muslim communities. Last year in Nice, French police sparked controversy when they raided a Muslim family’s apartment, firing shots and sending wood shards flying into a 6-year-old girl’s neck and ear. According to Human Rights Watch, the raid was actually on the wrong apartment.
Crockford notes that increasingly aggressive policing is likely to do little to gain trust or support for law enforcement in Muslim communities. This could hurt authorities’ ability to investigate and stop terrorist attacks before they happen.
“Collecting all available information in the world is not the way to identify a problem, but it does allow law enforcement to conduct discriminatory, status quo policing,” says Crockford.