A series of new reports show that state and local police have been busy collecting data on our daily activities as well — under questionable or nonexistent legal pretenses. These revelations about the extent of police snooping in the U.S. — and the lack of oversight over it — paint a disturbing picture for anyone who cares about civil liberties and privacy protection.
The tactics used by law enforcement are aggressive, surreptitious and surprising to even longtime surveillance experts. One report released last month made front page news: an investigation by more than 50 journalists that found that local law enforcement agencies are collecting cellphone data about thousands of innocent Americans each year by tapping into cellphone towers and even creating fake ones that act as data traps.
A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law details how police departments around the country have created data “fusion centers” to collect and share reports about residents. But the information in these reports seldom bears any relation to crime or terrorism. In California, for example, officers are encouraged to document and immediately report on “suspicious” activities such as “individuals who stay at bus or train stops for extended periods while buses and trains come and go,” “individuals who carry on long conversations on pay or cellular phones,” and “joggers who stand and stretch for an inordinate amount of time.” In Houston, the criteria are so broad they include anything deemed “suspicious or worthy of reporting.” Many police departments and fusion centers have reported on constitutionally protected activities such as photography and political speech. They have also demonstrated a troubling tendency to focus on people who appear to be of Middle Eastern origin.
It’s a waste of public resources, and it promotes a culture of fear, which is corrosive to democracy and an open society Kade Crawford Director, Technology For Libetyrsaid.
A 2012 report by the Senate Homeland Security Committee found that much of the information produced by fusion centers was not only useless, but also possibly illegal. Indeed, more than 95 percent of so-called suspicious activity reports are never investigated by the FBI.
“National security and local police” Brennan Center report:
Five tips for living in a surveillance state: