San Diego. California - It sounded smart on paper. In 2016, the San Diego City Council created a new infrastructure project related to its environmental initiatives: Thousands of streetlights would be retrofitted with energy-efficient LEDs. Plus, remote-controlled sensors would produce publicly accessible data on weather, traffic and parking. Considering the energy savings, the $30 million partnership with General Electric would pay for itself. Win-win. But today, the project is an example of how not to create “smart” city utilities. Those sensors included integrated cameras, and no councilmember formally opposed the potential surveillance issues. Most San Diego residents only learned they were filmed indiscriminately thanks to media reports — in 2019.
In the U.S. where we are fighting invasions of privacy and the destruction of our First Amendment rights in about 900 different ways every day, most of us have stopped talking about how insane and offensive airport security still is. To begin with, allow me to disabuse you of the notion that airport security stops terror attacks. As Darryl Campbell reports in The Verge, “the reality is that TSA has played next to no role in the biggest counterterrorism stories of the past two decades. According to the think tank RAND, intelligence and security services manage to foil nearly two-thirds of terrorist plots in the planning stages.” Of course, U.S. law enforcement also helps create almost all of the “terror attacks” they thwart.
A United States military whistleblower filed a series of complaints alleging the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is engaged in the warrantless purchase and use of Americans’ internet browsing data, which it obtained from a broker. “According to the whistleblower, NCIS is purchasing access to data, which includes netflow records and some communications content from Team Cymru,” Senator Ron Wyden shared in a letter to the offices of the inspector general for the Pentagon, Justice Department, and Homeland Security Department. The warrantless purchase of Americans’ data is not limited to the NCIS. Wyden’s office examined public contracting records and found Team Cymru was awarded data brokering contracts with US Cyber Command, the US Army, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the US Secret Service.
When I come across surveillance towers in the borderlands, I first look to see if there are any communities, towns, or houses in its view. I did this on Monday, on the Tohono O’odham Nation in the southern Arizona borderlands, when I found an “integrated fixed tower,” built by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. It took me, two other journalists, and O’odham member Raymond Daukei all day to find it. I could see that homes in Topawa—a community of 380 people backed by the verdant western side of the muscular Baboquivari mountain range—were easily in range of the tower’s sophisticated camera system, which can see up to seven and a half miles.
Today, the ACLU published thousands of pages of previously unreleased records about how Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other parts of the Department of Homeland Security are sidestepping our Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable government searches and seizures by buying access to, and using, huge volumes of people’s cell phone location information quietly extracted from smartphone apps. The records, which the ACLU obtained over the course of the last year through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, shed new light on the government’s ability to obtain our most private information by simply opening the federal wallet. These documents are further proof that Congress needs to pass the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act, which would end law enforcement agencies’ practice of buying their way around the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reported on Friday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) searched through the electronic data of Americans 3.4 million times in 2021. The searches were revealed in the ODNI’s “Annual Statistical Transparency Report Regarding the Intelligence Community’s Use of National Security Surveillance Authorities” for calendar year 2021. The data shows that there was nearly a tripling of these unconstitutional searches from 1.3 million in 2020. In typical fashion the ODNI report waives away this intensification of the surveillance state by claiming it was a technical matter related to vital national security matters, the details of which are never explained.
This is not a drill. Red alert: The police surveillance center in Jackson, Mississippi, will be conducting a 45-day pilot program to live stream the Amazon Ring cameras of participating residents. Since Ring first made a splash in the private security camera market, we’ve been warning of its potential to undermine the civil liberties of its users and their communities. We’ve been especially concerned with Ring’s 1,000+ partnerships with local police departments, which facilitate bulk footage requests directly from users without oversight or having to acquire a warrant.
“Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.” That same persistent eye in the sky may soon be deployed over U.S. cities. At the time he made that comment about surveillance drones over Afghanistan, Maj. General James Poss was the Air Force’s top intelligence officer. He was preparing to leave the Pentagon, and move over to the Federal Aviation Administration. His job was to begin executing the plan to allow those same surveillance drones to fly over American cities.
Seven years after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the mass surveillance of Americans’ telephone records, an appeals court has found the program was unlawful — and that the U.S. intelligence leaders who publicly defended it were not telling the truth. In a ruling handed down on Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said the warrantless telephone dragnet that secretly collected millions of Americans’ telephone records violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and may well have been unconstitutional.
Figuring out what we want our tech to look like is crucial if we’re going to get out of this mess. Today, we’re at a crossroads where we’re trying to figure out if we want to fix the Big Tech companies that dominate our internet or if we want to fix the internet itself by unshackling it from Big Tech’s stranglehold. We can’t do both, so we have to choose. I want us to choose wisely. Taming Big Tech is integral to fixing the internet, and for that, we need digital rights activism.
Uprisings for racial justice are sweeping the country. Following the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, named and unnamed, America has finally reached its moment of reckoning. And politicians are starting to respond. But you can’t end police violence without ending police surveillance. That starts with banning facial recognition, a technology perfectly designed for the automation of racism. I live in Detroit, a city with more than 500,000 Black people. In my city, we live under constant surveillance. We are in a perpetual lineup. Our faces are caught on camera everywhere we go—harvested and analyzed by algorithms. Numerous studies have shown that facial recognition algorithms exhibit systemic racial and gender bias. Detroit’s police chief openly admitted that their software is wrong up to 96 percent of the time.
Olympia, WA - Last week, a Washington state law went into effect that requires a warrant for ongoing and realtime facial recognition surveillance. The new law will not only help protect privacy in Washington state; it will take a step toward hindering one aspect of the federal surveillance state. A coalition of 10 Democrats introduced Senate Bill 6280 (SB6280) on Jan. 14. The new law requires law enforcement agencies to get a warrant “to engage in ongoing surveillance, to conduct real-time or near real-time identification, or to start persistent tracking” with just a few exceptions. This includes using facial recognition technology to scan crowds, streets or neighborhoods. Police can utilize facial recognition without a warrant when exigent circumstances exist or with a court order authorizing the use of the service for the sole purpose of locating or identifying a missing person, or identifying a deceased person.
There is no silver bullet solution that will stop the spread of online misinformation without resulting in collateral damage and censorship of legitimate content and marginalized voices. Instead of calling for more aggressive moderation, we should address the problem at its root: Big Tech companies’ underlying business model of data harvesting, micro-targeting, and artificial algorithmic amplification maximized for engagement above all else. These inherent flaws have become societal crises as a tiny handful of companies have become so large that their policies become de facto law for the entire Internet, something that can only be addressed by either breaking them up or building decentralized alternatives.
In 2019, San Francisco passed a landmark law banning government facial recognition and requiring public oversight for local decisions related to the acquisition and use of other surveillance technologies such as cameras, drones, and more. That effort, led by the ACLU in deep partnership with civil rights partners, is part of a bigger movement afoot in the U.S. In more than a dozen cities and counties, communities have passed laws ensuring that decisions about high-tech surveillance are made by the community through the democratic process, not in secret by police and surveillance companies acting alone. Together, we are achieving important victories against secret and dangerous surveillance. We are raising awareness of how surveillance technology like drones, stingrays, and facial recognition exacerbate discriminatory policing, suppress dissent, and facilitate harm to immigrants and people of color.
Many of the new surveillance powers now sought by the government to address the COVID-19 crisis would harm our First Amendment rights for years to come. People will be chilled and deterred from speaking out, protesting in public places, and associating with like-minded advocates if they fear scrutiny from cameras, drones, face recognition, thermal imaging, and location trackers. It is all too easy for governments to redeploy the infrastructure of surveillance from pandemic containment to political spying. It won't be easy to get the government to suspend its newly acquired tech and surveillance powers. When this wave of the public health emergency is over and it becomes safe for most people to leave their homes, they may find a world with even more political debate than when they left it.