Privacy SOS

Meet FirstNet: the surveillance industry’s blueprint for national data sharing

This guest post by Dan Massoglia

FirstNet is a public/private cooperative surveillance and information exchange enterprise—a vast network to share Americans' personal information—conceived by and written into law with the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. By law, FirstNet's purpose is to "create a nationwide, wireless, interoperable, public safety broadband network," a euphemism that means, "increase the ease with which government agencies share private and public information about people." By consolidating the placement of points of reference and interoperability for each potential node of state, local, commercial, and other communications networks, FirstNet is a blueprint for making surveillance data-sharing national, lightning-fast, and independent from the insecure, heavily monitored public internet.

At its heart, the nascent $7 billion network is an effort to centralize the myriad platforms the government uses to collect and access Americans' information. This means that sharing of biometrics, license plate tracking data, video surveillance, and intelligence will get substantially easier for law enforcement, and that our grasp on privacy will become even more tenuous. That said, not everything about FirstNet is bad. The network will probably do things like make sure fire trucks do not lose contact with fire stations as they travel from one cell tower to another. But there are lots of nefarious and troubling ways the network will be used, too, like to enable law enforcement to mine personal information from multiple jurisdictions at once, with hardly any external oversight.

Where does FirstNet come from, and who's paying for it?

While its initial implementation will be bolstered by federal funding, and involves negotiations within the frameworks of multiple national programs in a public/private bidding process, promotional materials say the network will sustain itself on fees—with municipal and other customers paying an array of actors to access the pipeline and its tools.

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A demo video from a defense technology trade show (embedded above) provides a peek into one troubling aspect of FirstNet's operations. Alcatel-Lucent, a prominent defense contractor involved from an early stage on oversight boards for the program, is one of the companies vying to build applications to make FirstNet a more insidious surveillance apparatus. In the video above, executives from Alcatel-Lucent tell and demonstrate for a camera the ways in which their license plate reading and biometric data services will work with FirstNet. This cozy incest of private surveillance and government agencies gets a lot more intimate, and potentially a lot more profitable, with FirstNet.

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Another promotional video (embedded above) showcasing the network's potential surveillance applications features a CCTV camera feed in an airport, placing cross hairs over every the face of every human in the shot alongside the tagline, "Detects Persons of Interests."

The program will doubtless have an enormous impact on the public and the character of our society, but officials as high up as the Department of Justice are going out of their way to hide critical information about FirstNet development from public scrutiny. The managers of the program have staged a series of PR sessions around the country for groups of local officials, first responders, and industry figures, but have done little to inform the people against whom the technology will be used. In a telling omission, a FirstNet slide describing its points of outreach fails to dignify with a bullet point "the public" —yet it makes sure to do so for vendors, applications developers, congress, and media, most of whom stand to benefit from and shape the future impact of the surveillance apparatus.

The body initially responsible for determining a minimum set of technical capabilities for FirstNet's operation—separate from its Board—was comprised of telecom executives, officers of multiple defense companies, and public officials, and its recommended philosophy for the ostensibly public project is chilling: "FirstNet must fully (emphasis original) embrace the technologies, standards and best practices used by commercial service providers." Even if we operate under the assumption that the program's public safety purpose would be limited to things like enabling the remote prioritization of medical care at the scenes of public emergencies, there’s great danger that, as this influential Public Intelligence report on the program notes, the significant corporate influence over its development has perverted any legitimate purpose the program might have had.

So who is running this show, anyway? The FirstNet Board features high-profile members of the American surveillance establishment, including former Secretary of Homeland Security (and current embattled University of California President) Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Assistant NYPD Chief Chuck Dowd. Private industry is also well represented on the Board, a disheartening prospect given what we know about telecom's shaky commitment to privacy.

Overall, emphasis in FirstNet appears to be on breaking down information sharing barriers among law enforcement agencies and private corporations. An early set of guidelines for the program anticipates, for example, that, the networks will service secondary users—corporate and non-local clients—and should be arranged so that, "devices outside of their normal jurisdiction to connect to a local packet data network and to the device's home packet data network to carry out incident objectives." This means that in cases of unspecified emergency, FirstNet clients will be able to skirt normal blocks to info-sharing and pluck data from others' networks.

By integrating solutions to resource-based obstacles for the increased use of invasive monitoring technologies like fingerprint readers and license plate scanning, FirstNet subverts privacy in favor of surveillance, with near endless possibilities for overreach. A recent article reporting successful negotiations between FirstNet and municipalities over the use of the 700MHz wireless spectrum, for example, notes FirstNet's enthusiasm about a partnership with a Denver-area 911 network due to its proximity to an airport and thus the prospect for manipulating wireless traffic there.

The public-private surveillance partnership FirstNet provides incentives to local agencies to upgrade and use mobile biometric and real time surveillance technologies. It also increases the number of persons who can access—and thus abuse—the personal information law enforcement agencies send across it. The carelessness that often characterizes United States government treatment of personal data—a recent report including descriptions of shocking flaws in DHS data hygiene  stands out—becomes a much higher stakes problem when departments nationwide are hooked into the same base of data.

We need to know more about how FirstNet is being developed and about what kinds of corporations will be allowed to tap into the private network. We need to know if under FirstNet, information held by a county or police department is fair game for others hooked into the program. The government is building a top-tier, secure internet for itself, through which it can communicate and quickly transmit surveillance data about us. We should be arguing for fewer police departments with their hands on our data, not more—and thus far it appears as if FirstNet is a dangerous step in the wrong direction.

Dan Massoglia is a researcher, writer, and law student in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter at @jujueyeball.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.