Protecting privacy in an era of smart police

The California Department of Justice convened a forum on “smart policing” technologies.
Published: Thursday, February 05, 2015

The evolution of surveillance technology has changed the landscape of how police, emergency services and governments do business. The collection of massive amounts of biometric (physical) data also has raised privacy and civil liberties concerns.

On Jan. 21, the California Department of Justice convened a forum at the Milton Marks Conference Center in San Francisco for advocates, law enforcement, government officials and academics to discuss how law enforcement is procuring and using “smart policing” technologies, how local communities are addressing related policy issues and how to develop best practices for balancing the need to keep our communities safe with the essentiality of respecting privacy and protecting civil liberties.

The first session provided information on all of the technologies that are being used, their benefits, and the privacy and civil liberties risks associated with each of the technologies. Robert Morgester, California Senior Assistant Attorney General and head of the state’s eCrime Unit, and Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, presented and discussed a wide array of surveillance technologies, including:

  • Automated license plate readers (ALPR) – camera systems mounted in patrol cars or on traffic lights that scan license plates
  • Facial recognition – software that identifies a person in a photo or video based on various characteristics in a person’s face
  • Mobile fingerprint readers – mobile devices used to take fingerprints in the field
  • Mobile device forensics – data collected from a mobile device
  • Digital forensics – data collected from a computer
  • Rapid DNA analyzer – device that is able to analyze DNA in about 50 minutes
  • Body-mounted cameras – small cameras worn by officers to record audio and video
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) – may carry cameras, microphones or other digital recording devices
  • Cell site simulator (Stingray) – can emulate cell towers to intercept mobile phone communications
  • Physical security information management (PSIM) – software that provides a platform and application to share information from multiple unconnected security devices and use them with one comprehensive user interface
  • Range-R – radar that is used to locate someone within a building

In addition to these surveillance tools, most police officers today have radios, smartphones, tablets and/or computers in their patrol cars.

These technologies give law enforcement an investigative edge, but they also pose some real privacy and civil liberties concerns. For example, ALPRs read thousands of license plates per minute and the numbers are uploaded into a police database, enabling police to track vehicle (and motorist) location. Automated license plate readers have the potential to create permanent records of virtually every place any driver—including the innocent—has been. Because each jurisdiction determines how long the data is stored, retention policies are all over the map.

Advocates also raised concerns about mobile fingerprint readers. In Los Angeles, local police cruise streets where day laborers gather and collect their fingerprints with mobile scanners. The day laborers consent because they do not want to seem uncooperative. The data collection opens them and their families to becoming targets for future searches and investigations.

Attendees agreed that surveillance and other technology enhances the way that law enforcement does their work and that it also helps them to coordinate with emergency services and government. However, participants expressed concern that there should be a public process for procurement of these technologies in order to keep the data secure, community engagement in developing policies for its use, transparency in implementation procedures, and a willingness from law enforcement to understand that they are sitting on a stockpile of highly sensitive data that could be badly misused.

Editor’s note: For those who are interested in learning more about biometric data collection, read the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s 2012 report, From Fingerprints to DNA: Biometric Data Collection in U.S. Immigrant Communities and Beyond. Jennifer Lynch is the author of the report.




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