Since Congress passed legislation in February ordering the Federal Aviation Administration to fast-track the approval of unmanned aerial vehicles—more colloquially known as drones—for use by law enforcement agencies, police and sheriff departments across the country have been scrambling to purchase the smaller, unarmed cousins of the Predator and Reaper drones which carry out daily sorties over Afghanistan, Yemen, and other theaters of operation.
Alameda County in California has become one of the central battlegrounds over the introduction of drones to domestic police work. Earlier this year, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern raised the hackles of local civil libertarians (and there are quite a few of those in the county, which encompasses Berkeley and Oakland) by declaring his intention to purchase a drone to assist with “emergency response.” According to Ahern, Alameda Sheriff’s personnel first tested a UAV in fall 2011 and gave a public demonstration of the machine’s usefulness for emergency responses during the Urban Shield SWAT competition in late October.
Were Alameda County to purchase a drone, it would set a precedent in California, which has long been an innovator in law enforcement tactics: from SWAT teams (pioneered in Delano and Los Angeles) to anti-gang tactics such as civil injunctions. The first documented incident of a drone being used to make an arrest in the United States occurred in North Dakota in June 2011, when local police received assistance from an unarmed Predator B drone that belonged to US Customs and Border Protection. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration have also reportedly used drones for domestic investigations.
The NYPD is but one of a growing number of local and state police agencies throughout the country engaged in the non-stop tracking of car license plates. Most troubling, the data captured through license plate reader (LPR) and automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) programs are being integrated with other personal data to provide the security state with ever more detailed profiles of ordinary Americans.
The US government isn’t allowed to wiretap American citizens without a warrant from a judge. But there are plenty of legal ways for law enforcement, from the local sheriff to the FBI, to snoop on the digital trails you create every day. Authorities can often obtain your e-mails and texts by going to Google or AT&T with a simple subpoena. Usually you won’t even be notified. The Senate last weektook a step toward updating privacy protection for emails, but it’s likely the issue will be kicked to the next Congress.
As Congress mulls changes to an outdated law intended to protect electronic privacy, a group of law enforcement officers is lobbying for a provision that would erode privacy by requiring that text messages be saved and stored for at least two years. According to CNET, police and prosecutors’ groups say they have increasingly come to rely on text messages as evidence in criminal cases, and they are vying for a mandated storage period in amendments to the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act now being considered:
[T]he Senate Judiciary committee … approved sweeping amendments to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act last week. Unlike earlier drafts, the latest one veers in a very privacy-protective direction by requiring police to obtain a warrant to read the contents of e-mail messages; the SMS push by law enforcement appears to be a way to make sure it includes one of their priorities too.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the law enforcement proposal is to store the contents of SMS messages, or only the metadata such as the sender and receiver phone numbers associated with the messages. Either way, it’s a heap of data: Forrester Research reports that more than 2 trillion SMS messages were sent in the U.S. last year, over 6 billion SMS messages a day.
Among the groups urging the mandate are the Mayor Cities Police Chiefs Association, the National District Attorneys’ Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association, and the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies. These agencies are not alone in vying for more data collection and retention. The Department of Justice last year called for laws requiring Internet providers to retain data. But the American Civil Liberties Union’s Christopher Calabrese points out that any such proposal certainly doesn’t belong in discussions of reform of the law intended to protect electronic privacy.
Evidence suggests that wireless carriers have a range of evolving policies on retaining text messages, from no retention at all to 180 days. Most companies, however, appear not to have policies that messages be stored for a time period even close to two years. A spokesman for U.S. Cellular told CNET that data is stored for just 3-5 days, due to the volume of the content.
In a closely watched case, the federal judge ruled that the Constitutional rights of two defendants — Manuel Mendoza and Marco Magana of Green Bay, WI — were not violated when federal agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) invaded their private property without warrant to plant wireless surveillance cameras. The judge also ruled that the collected evidence could be used against the defendants.
The judge argued that the 22-acre property’s numerous “no trespassing” signs did not apply to federal agents — with or without warrant.
The Senate concludes that when all the privileged details of the investigations were considered, there was no sign that the pricey data centers were successful at fighting any known terrorist plot.
So what did the data centers accomplish? According to the panel the legacy is mostly negative. They claim the Fusion centers — whose objective is ostensibly to share national intelligence with state/local law enforcement and analyze potential terrorist threats — in the end mostly ended up violating U.S. citizens’ civil liberties.
In cities hosting large gatherings such as the national political conventions or international summits, we’ve come to expect a massive militarized police presence, even as the ranks of protesters thin. But what happens to all of the new high-tech cop toys and newly passed ordinances once conventioneers leave town? They stay.
Largely unregulated, cameras now collect millions of travel records every day.
The scanners can read 60 license plates per second, then match observed plates against a “hot list” of wanted vehicles, stolen cars, or criminal suspects. LPRs have increasingly become a mainstay of law enforcement nationwide; many agencies tout them as a highly effective “force multiplier” for catching bad guys, most notably burglars, car thieves, child molesters, kidnappers, terrorists, and—potentially—undocumented immigrants.
Today, tens of thousands of LPRs are being used by law enforcement agencies all over the country—practically every week,local media around the countryreport on some LPR expansion. But the system’s unchecked and largely unmonitored use raises significant privacy concerns. License plates, dates, times, and locations of all cars seen are kept in law enforcement databases for months or even years at a time. In the worst case, the New York State Police keeps all of its LPR data indefinitely. No universal standard governs how long data can or should be retained.
Imagine a stun gun that doesn’t just drop you to the floor, but renders you unconscious for several minutes. This tech is called a “nano-second electrical pulse,” and the Pentagon believes it could be used in a gun that would hit targets with high voltages of electricity for an amazingly short amount of time – we’re talking billionths of seconds here. That would make the enemy an easy capture. But today’s stun guns are already linked to dozens, if not hundreds, of abusive incidents. What happens if they become even more powerful?
Situations that cops thirty years ago would have defused with talk and reason are now resolved with “less lethal force” such as the use of tasers on agitated 80-year-old women whose homes were invaded at 3AM. Even talking to a confused or upset person apparently poses a monstrous threat to life and limb — or at least an unacceptable inconvenience for someone in a hurry to reach the donut shop — justifying instant resort to boots and batons, tasers or bullets.
Clusters of what at first appear to be surveillance cameras have begun turning up in recent months on the Southwest border, and while some of the machines are merely surveillance cameras, others are specialized recognition devices that automatically capture license-plate numbers and the geographic location of everyone who passes by, plus the date and time.
The DEA confirms that the devices have been deployed in Arizona, California, Texas, and New Mexico. It has plans to introduce them farther inside the United States.
The advent ofPolice Tapeis designed to counter a practice an increasing number of civilians have encountered over the past few years: those who videotape or photograph police officers performing routine stops and other official acts are frequently arrested or disciplined. Evidently, many officers are all in favor of increased surveillance as long as it isn’t turned on them.