It took me less than 10 seconds to find out my local police department has access to the Amazon Ring Neighbors app and that they’ve been wearing Axon body cameras force-wide since 2014. I used the Atlas of Surveillance, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), in partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno’s Reynolds School of Journalism, has updated to include a searchable, interactive database of nationwide police surveillance.
It has a cleaner, simpler interface than those COVID-19 dashboards we check every day, and it shows you at a glance where police are using body cameras, drones, automated license plate readers, the Ring/Neighbors app, camera registry, facial recognition, cell-site simulators, gunshot detection, predictive policing, “video analytics/computer vision,” fusion centers, and real-time crime centers.
The Atlas aims to give the public insight into how it is being surveilled by the police. In a press release, the EFF said the Atlas includes “several thousand data points” on some 3,000 law enforcement departments and offices across the U.S.
A chilling stat: According to the Atlas, the U.S. has 130 “law enforcement tech hubs” that are able to process “real-time surveillance data.”
The project has been underway for a year and a half, mainly relying on hundreds of University of Nevada, Reno journalism students and other volunteers who have collected, combed through, and aggregated data from “news articles, government meeting agendas, company press releases, and social media posts,” per the press release.
The Atlas is not perfect; the information for my county is mislabeled, for example. A bordering state has a county by the same name. When I looked up what my county Sheriff’s office is up to, I found that the listed information was actually for the other county. Fortunately, because each listing in the Atlas offers links to sources — in this case, a news report from the other state — it was easy to discover the error.
And it’s easy to report. You can contribute to the Atlas for Surveillance to add information, or in my case, report an error. It took only a couple of minutes.
A publicly available and searchable police surveillance database, like this Atlas of Surveillance, gives average citizens — and journalists — rich, easily understandable, and critically important data at a time when police surveillance is a lightning rod topic.
In the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the subsequent police violence against those protesting systemic racism, calls to defund police continue to grow louder. In Minneapolis, where police killed Mr. Floyd, the city council has already begun radical moves against its police force. Detroit could serve as a test case for the failures of AI-powered police surveillance, and current grassroots and national political opposition to it may lead to a financial reckoning. Facial recognition use by law enforcement is prohibited or under a moratorium in several U.S. cities, and some members of Congress have called for restrictions on facial recognition by law enforcement and federal government agencies. An investigation in Canada effectively forced facial recognition vendor Clearview AI to cut ties with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). And Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM have all, to degrees, stepped away from the facial recognition business.
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