CC.4: Police surveillance

  • Which police technologies were familiar to you? Which were new? What have you seen in use?
  • What reform or abolition efforts are happening in your community?
  • What threat models did you have in mind during this discussion?
  • How can we bring information about police surveillance, as well as * mitigations against it, into our communities?

Here in Baltimore, I am very much aware of police surveillance technologies. Even more so as an employee of JHU. The shot spotter and the surveillance drone pilot program that was stopped are the two most popular or well known. However, there are BCPD cameras posted on street light-posts in targeted neighborhoods and the multitude of Facebook community groups is unnerving. There are about 10 that I can quickly point out for my neighborhood. I have belonged to a few over time but now only check on one due to the racist posts and comments being shared. Thankfully, the one that I am still a member of has a moderator who pushes back on inappropriate comments, as well as fellow community members.

The most well known reform efforts that I am aware of revolved around the drone surveillance program that was shut down due to activists, particularly Black activists, in Baltimore sighting privacy concerns. Honestly, I used to be a fan of police body cameras, but now, with the prevalence of officers not turning them on or turning them off at critical moments, it seems pointless. Plus, as I have become more informed regarding privacy issues, I am unsure how beneficial police body cameras are for the general public. Plus, with the number of people who are exploited by the police or who might just have a random, non criminal interaction with an officer, I am conflicted on their privacy being overlooked by police body cameras.

I have this dueling dissonance that says police body cameras should be recording at all times, without interference from the officers wearing them, while also disagreeing with the notion that safety comes at the expense of personal privacy.

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I was aware of most of the technologies we mentioned, although often I was not aware of the scope of each of the technologies. For example, while I knew that toll-readers like EZ-pass could be used to track a person’s movement through toll booths, I did not realize how long that information was kept, that it could be picked up by other RFID tag readers, and that it could be used for non-toll purposes without users consent. As far as what I’ve seen in use, I’m mostly familiar with automatic license plate readers, CCTV and body cameras.

The biggest abolition group that I am aware of in Indianapolis is IDOC watch. Their work is mostly prison abolition focused, with calls to release Indiana political prisoners and a focus on challenging prison conditions. While I believe they support police abolition as well, that has not appeared to be the focus of their work. I did also see some light community push back on some automated license plate readers that were put in on one of our main streets. However, a lot of that pushback seemed to center around not knowing what the devices were as they were implemented and once they were identified as license plate readers, some of the push started to die down.

I am nearly always thinking about police surveillance from a threat model of community activism, particularly around police abolition or reproductive justice (and the way the two are intertwined). As we’ve discussed in past sessions, I think the best day to both educate and mitigate surveillance is to incorporate awareness of these technologies in general privacy courses, although I think there are great benefits to hosting a privacy class for political advocacy as well.

Also as a fun bonus, since I wasn’t present and able to share on Monday, my favorite way to gently push back on predictive policing software or apps like Citizen is this really fun white collar crime prediction tool. I’ve found that it helps disrupt folks who are overwhelmed by potential crimes happening in their neighborhood and sparks discussion about what who we view as requiring surveillance.

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