Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Predictive policing tools. License plate readers. Stingrays. As more and more surveillance tools fall into police’s hands, cities are trying to play catch up.
A local government. A powerful private entity with controversial technology. A secret deal. This time, in New Orleans.
On Tuesday, The Verge revealed that Peter Thiel’s software company, Palantir, has been piloting a predictive policing technology in New Orleans for the past six years. Until The Verge’s story, the program was completely unknown not only to the public, but also to city council members.
The program, like a similar program in Chicago, pulls information from a variety of law enforcement databases and social media networks, and draws up a list of people most likely to be involved in violent crime. The stated purpose of programs like this is to better predict and prevent violent crimes. But civil rights groups have raised a host of concerns about the discriminatory effects of such data-collection and algorithm-based programs.
Had the community known about the program, these concerns might have surfaced. But like New Orleans, cities across the U.S. are adopting new surveillance technologies and algorithms without any public input or oversight. (See, eg., a secret drone program in Baltimore uncovered by Bloomberg last year).
There’s a movement afoot to change this. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in partnership with other digital and civil rights groups have been pushing local policies that would require public approval of new surveillance technologies and regulate their usage. And several cities have recently passed such laws. “Local surveillance systems have long been expanding, and are vulnerable to misuse,” said Matt Cagle, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, who specializes in digital rights. “That’s why it’s really important that local community members demand answers from their elected officials about why these tools are necessary and if there are going to be uses, what sorts of safeguards are place.”
In New Orleans, evidence that the secret predictive policing program helped decrease crime is flimsy, The Verge’s Ali Winston found. Analyses have shown that crime-forecasting algorithms come with built-in biases. One reason is that information these algorithms draw from is largely about poor neighborhoods where police presence is higher, so the outcomes are also likely to target communities of color.
The ACLU has compiled a list of tech tools that are being used by local police departments ostensibly for crimefighting—and it’s long. Police departments increasingly own cell site simulators, or stingrays, to hack into cell phones. They can read license plates and monitor E-ZPass token usage to create a detailed picture of a person’s driving route. In addition to Closed Circuit Television cameras, light aircrafts and light bulbs with surveillance capacity are giving Jane Jacobs’ idea of “eyes on the street” a new, more insidious meaning. Some new technology can enable police to even see through solid barriers—like car doors an house walls.
Using these and other tools, law enforcement can create a pretty detailed picture of who we are, who we interact with, where we go, what we do, and what we look at online. “Modern surveillance systems frequently collect information about our movements and about our private lives,” Cagle said. “This is not the kind of information that the government should be able to access without a clear justification and suspicion of wrongdoing.”
In light of all this, the ACLU launched the Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) campaign in 2016, urging city governments to pass an ordinance that ensures a public debate before any such technologies are adopted. It’s along the lines of efforts to curb the proliferation of military equipment at the local level. So far, Seattle; Nashville; Somerville, Massachusetts; and Santa Clara County, California; have already passed such legislation. Nineteen other local governments (including two states) are considering similar laws.
These technologies have the potential to affect everybody, but history has shown that communities of color tend to bear the brunt. The use of ‘Stingray’ technology by police in Baltimore, for example, occurs predominantly in minority neighborhoods.
Often, information collected from these devices is plugged into privately-owned databases, or handed over to the federal government and used for other purposes. That’s a major concern for advocates, given the Trump administration’s intentions to monitor Muslim immigrants, “black identity extremists,” and other immigrant communities.
Even cities that may not have wanted to aid the federal government’s efforts already are. A recent report by The Verge’s Russell Brandom revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has purchased access to an extensive national database of license plate reader information from a private company called Vigilant Solutions, which allows the agency to retrace the movement of a license plate for the last five years. ICE can also get alerts when a particular license plate pops up on the radar in real time. Vigilant collected this data, in part, by partnering with local law enforcement.
“Surveillance technology is a big business, and companies who build it have an interest in collecting data from one customer and making it available to their other customers,” Cagle said.“I think one of the key lessons here is that surveillance that happens locally doesn’t necessarily stay local.”
These technologies are multiplying, in part, through hush-hush agreements and lack of regulation at the local level. But cities are starting to catch up. In January, Culver City in California held a city council hearing to purchase an of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) system from Vigilant worth half a million dollars. Many residents were unhappy.
“This is a solution searching for a problem,” Local blogger Warren Szewczyk reported a military veteran saying at the meeting. "We don't need to change our neighborhoods into war zones. “
In the end, the council declined to vote on the acquisitions, asking instead for a clear policy around the technologies before they vote on approving them.