This week, EFF’s Atlas of Surveillance project hit a bittersweet milestone.
With this project, we are creating a searchable and mappable repository of which law enforcement agencies in the U.S. use surveillance technologies such as body-worn cameras, drones, automated license plate readers, and face recognition. It’s one of the most ambitious projects we’ve ever attempted.
Working with journalism students at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), our initial semester-long pilot in 2019 resulted in 250 data points, just from the counties along the U.S. border with Mexico. When we launched the first nationwide site in late summer 2020, we had reached just more than 5,000 data points.
The Atlas of Surveillance has now hit 10,000 data points. It contains at least partial data on approximately 5,500 law enforcement agencies in all 50 states, as well as most territories and districts.
This growth is a testament to the power of crowdsourcing: UNR Reynolds School of Journalism students and other volunteers have completed more than 2,000 micro-research tasks through our Report Back tool, which automatically generates assignments to look up whether a particular agency is using a particular technology. We’ve also worked with students and volunteers to capture and process new datasets and file hundreds of public records requests.
However, this milestone sadly also reflects the massive growth of surveillance adoption by police agencies. High-tech spying is no longer limited to well-resourced urban areas; even the smallest hamlet’s police department might be deploying powerful technology that gathers data on its residents, regardless of whether those residents are connected to a criminal case. We’ve seen the number of partnerships between police and the home surveillance company Ring grow from 1,300 to more than 2,000. In the two years since we first published a complementary report on real-time crime centers — essentially police tech hubs, filled with wall-to-wall camera monitors and computers jacked into surveillance datasets — the number of such centers in the U.S. has grown from 80 to 100.
All this might have gone unnoticed had the Atlas of Surveillance project not been keeping track.
Our project began with two main goals.
The first was transparency. For years, national journalists and researchers struggled to get a grip on how certain surveillance technologies were spreading across the country, and we’d often field calls seeking help. Our best methods for gathering this information were to send out public records requests en masse or to simply “Google it.” Similarly, we’d often get calls from local reporters, activists, and policymakers who were trying to understand all the different technologies used by their local police and sheriffs. By building the Atlas of Surveillance, we provided them with a resource that could become the first stop on any quest to learn more about police technology.
Our second goal for the Atlas of Surveillance was engagement. We didn’t just want to build this internally: We wanted to involve a broader community so that more people could dig in and learn about the techniques and challenges for researching surveillance. This was largely made possible by partnering with the Reynolds School at UNR, where we have taught students at all levels how to do this research, from simple search-engine assignments to full-fledged FOIA requests to data scraping.
On both counts, the project has been successful. Countless news articles have been based on or cited EFF’s project, such as local reporting on drones in North Texas, a statewide analysis in New Hampshire, and an investigation into police surveillance of protesters in Charlotte. We’ve also seen the Atlas used for a large amount of scholarly research. Among our favorites are an analysis of the Atlas in the journal Social Problems and research from the University of California, Berkeley on big data policing’s impact on racial inequality in suburbs. The Atlas is also used in many schools and in the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Journalism School Digital Security curriculum.
We’ve had more than a dozen UNR interns join us to do even deeper dives into the data, helping us to partner with groups like Data 4 Black Lives and to publish a report on campus police surveillance. In addition to our partnership with UNR, we’ve also led research sessions with students and volunteers across the country, including the University of Washington, Harvard College, Arizona State University, and Kennesaw State University, as well as with audiences at events like Wikiconference North America and the Aaron Swartz Day International Hackathon.
It’s amazing to us to think back on the hundreds and hundreds of people who have donated even a little of their time to learn a little about surveillance and contribute research to the project.
If it’s been a while since you last checked your hometown in the Atlas, we recommend taking a moment to explore and to share it with your community. And stay tuned in 2023 as we continue to add new features and build the knowledge needed to hold police accountable.