Privacy SOS

News roundup: Facial recognition, dragnet surveillance, and information sharing between local cops and ICE

There’s been a lot of important technology and civil liberties news over the past week. Here’s what you may have missed.

Civil Liberties Groups Caution Against Use of Facial Recognition on Body Worn Cameras

Dozens of groups including the ACLU and NAACP last week called on Axon, the maker of taser and a big player in the body worn camera industry, not to adopt real-time facial recognition on its cameras. The letter comes in the wake of Axon’s announcing the launch of an ethics committee to address similar questions.

In 2016, the Boston Police Department published a policy to govern its body worn camera pilot program. Thanks to advocacy by the ACLU and the Boston Police Camera Action Team, the BPD’s policy bans the use of facial recognition on body cameras. Cities nationwide have also adopted ordinances to require community control over police surveillance, to ensure that if law enforcement wants to adopt tools like facial recognition, agencies must first get approval from the community, through its local elected officials. Brookline, Cambridge, Boston, and Lawrence, Massachusetts, are currently considering similar proposals.

Virginia Supreme Court Revives Challenge to Dragnet License Plate Tracking

The ACLU of Virginia has been trying for years to address a nationwide problem: Law enforcement collection and retention of information about the travel patterns and location histories of millions of people, without any specific reason to believe any of them are engaged in criminal activity. In 2013, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli told the state police that if license plate reader data—which includes GPS location, the time and date, and a photo of the car—does not relate specifically to a criminal investigation, they cannot collect it. As a result, the state police adopted a practice of purging its license plate reader data every 24 hours. But other law enforcement agencies did not; the Washington Post found that they were keeping the data for as long as two years, despite Cuccinelli’s opinion. So the ACLU sued, arguing that the practice violates the state Data Act. A lower court rejected the ACLU’s arguments, but the state’s high court last week reversed. Crucially, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected law enforcement’s argument that the Data Act exempts practices “that deal with investigations and intelligence gathering related to criminal activity.” No, the court held: “the Police Department’s sweeping randomized surveillance and collection of personal information does not ‘deal with investigations and intelligence gathering related to criminal activity,’ and therefore if the ALPR database is determined to be an information system, it is not exempt from the operation of the Data Act.”

In other words, the police do not get to conduct dragnet surveillance of the entire population and then call it investigative or intelligence work. That’s huge.

Massachusetts State and Local Police Share Information with ICE

Cambridge, Boston, and Somerville, Massachusetts have all passed local ordinances to limit their local law enforcement’s collaboration with ICE. But documents recently published by Injustice Today, first obtained by the ACLU of Massachusetts, show that an information sharing system called COPLINK gives federal immigration authorities direct access to troves of data about people in the Commonwealth, shared by those very local law enforcement agencies and hundreds of others. The information sharing system allows police, state officials, and federal agents to not only query and view records from law enforcement statewide, but also make connections between people, places, and things. The records contain field interviews (also known as stop and frisk reports), incident reports, arrest reports, gang database information, data from the state’s Registry of Motor Vehicles, over 2 million mugshots, sex offender registry information, and data from the parole board and state department of corrections.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.