EFF adds Street Surveillance Hub so Americans can check who's checking on them
'The federal government has almost entirely abdicated its responsibility'
For a country that prides itself on being free, America does seem to have an awful lot of spying going on, as the new Street Surveillance Hub from the Electronic Frontier Foundation shows.
The Hub contains detailed breakdowns of the type of surveillance systems used, from bodycams to biometrics, predictive policing software to gunshot detection microphones and drone-equipped law enforcement. It also has a full news feed so that concerned citizens can keep up with the latest US surveillance news; they can also contribute to the Atlas of Surveillance on the site.
The Atlas, started in 2019, allows anyone to check what law enforcement is being used in their local area – be it license plate readers, drones, or gunshot detection microphones. It can also let you know if local law enforcement is collaborating with third parties like home security vendor Ring to get extra information.
EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia told The Register that once people look into what's being deployed using their tax dollars, a lot of red flags are raised.
Over the last few years America's thin blue line have not only been harvesting huge amounts of data themselves, but also buying it in from commercial operators. The result is a perfect storm on privacy – with police, homeowners, and our personal technology proving to be a goldmine of intrusive information that's often misused.
The Register: The updated guide has a bunch of new information, how big is the problem?
Guariglia: We have to start to pay attention to the fact that many cities across the United States are paying millions of dollars for all these high tech devices and software that they claimed were going to be the silver bullet to ending crime.
Just after a few months or a few years, they are canceling those contracts, because they're actually not very useful, or the technology gets things wrong. Police used to want to put up as many cameras as possible, but now we see them pivoting more toward things like automated license plate readers.
The Register: Is this solely a police problem or is surveillance becoming more ubiquitous?
Guariglia: The disturbing thing about our current landscape is that just because police don't own cameras doesn't mean they have access to footage. So if communities or homeowners associations are putting up license plate reader, police often can very easily get access to that data as well. Increasingly, police, use private technology companies, and the data they collect, as an extension of their own evidence.
The Register: Does that extend all the way down to supposedly personal technology devices?
Guariglia:As police extend their own network of surveillance, and as it becomes more omnipresent, there is a whole other landscape of surveillance below the surface, which is our personal devices. These collect data which police can also access, sometimes without a warrant.
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The Register: What's the federal government doing about this?
Guariglia: I think the federal government has almost entirely abdicated its responsibility to protect the privacy of people in the United States. And I think where we've actually seen some of the useful legislation coming from is on the city and state level. I think focusing efforts on introducing and lobbying for legislation at the local and state level is going to be one of the most direct way to do things.
I think that part of the problem is that if you ask the average person in the United States: What technology is your police department deploying? How do they use it? And how much do they pay for it?
The Register: Finally, how can people help with the project?
Guariglia: They can certainly contribute through our atlas of surveillance program, with publicly available information about when police departments are deploying the technology. It's very much an open source and community based project that hundreds, if not thousands, of people across the country have contributed to. ®