Privacy SOS

Department of Justice funds ‘pre-crime’ and face recognition research for state and local police

Unbeknownst to most taxpayers, the federal government spends considerable sums every year funding the research, development, and procurement of advanced surveillance technologies. Often these funds are given to private companies that have a long-term financial interest in the development of cutting edge surveillance products. Luckily for them, they can get government assistance to develop these tools, and then profit off of selling the finished product back to government agencies. The Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice each have their own research and development programs for surveillance tools of all kinds, and state and local police departments nationwide benefit from the trickle down of technology and gear.

Meanwhile, the taxpayers who foot the bill are more often than not kept entirely in the dark about how these monies are spent. But some of this information is public, and you can read at least basic summaries of the grant awards if you know where to look.

One of the federal offices that funds substantial R&D in surveillance technology is the Office of Justice Programs' National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The NIJ describes itself as the "research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice — [] dedicated to improving knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science. NIJ provides objective and independent knowledge and tools to reduce crime and promote justice, particularly at the state and local levels," its website says. The research monies invested at NIJ have a substantial effect on the tools, methodologies, and training systems deployed by police departments throughout the country, now and in the future. The agency's funding choices therefore have a real impact on hundreds of millions of people's lives.

For that reason, every now and then I peruse the NIJ website to see what kind of hair-brained schemes and research projects the DOJ is funding, with an eye towards local police department surveillance technologies. When I searched the website today, I found that the NIJ is putting lots of its R&D money towards investigating the efficacy of 'predictive policing', sometimes known as 'intelligence-led policing'. Others simply call it 'pre-crime'. Predictive policing uses big data, behavioral and associational surveillance models, and computer algorithms to direct public safety resources and focus patrols. 

Among the 2013 NIJ-funded grant awards related to pre-crime are:

  • $245k to Carnegie Mellon University "to develop an adaptive expert system that searches internet escort advertisements to determine which ads are associated with sex trafficking";
  • $553k to George Mason University to study the efficacy of using automatic license plate readers to track motorists in targeted areas;
  • $760k to the University of Chicago to work with the NYPD to determine "behavioral interventions" for "improving hot-spot policing";
  • $499k to Justice & Security Strategies, Inc. to test geospatial predictive policing strategies at the Columbia, SC police department;
  • $383k to the NYPD for a "proposed multi-level analysis of the effectiveness of Risk Terrain Modeling for allocating police resources", a fancy way of saying predictive policing by neighborhood; and
  • $28k to Washington State University to test a geospatial predictive policing theory related to "natural surveillance" and residential burglaries.

Among the other NIJ grant awards for 2013 are:

  • $490k to Unmanned Experts, LLC to use small drones to capture depth-of-field images of car crashes so that law enforcement can accurately reconstruct them after the fact;
  • $493k to Carnegie Mellon University to "develop a software tool that can be disseminated to law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies that will provide them with the capability to perform facial recognition using low quality, low resolution images, such as those obtained from CCTV surveillance footage";
  • $1.6 million to the RAND Corporation to identify high priority technologies for law enforcement, corrections, and courts;
  • $119k to Michigan State University to develop technology that would match police sketches of suspects to images in government databases, using biometric face recognition software; and
  • $474k to General Electric to develop video analytics technologies including low-light, low-resolution face recognition tied to CCTV systems.

The government and private corporations are racing ahead to build the next big thing in domestic surveillance for police departments and federal law enforcement at all levels. Privacy law, meanwhile, is stuck in the big hair era. 

Thanks to grant programs and funding streams from largely unaccountable, secretive federal agencies, our state and local police departments are increasingly resembling paramilitary organizations staffed with their own intelligence wings. This isn't your grandma's surveillance state. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.