Privacy SOS

Police tell us we need to give up privacy, but do these systems really keep us safe?

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long term cookie on your computer.

The NSA is an advanced adversary, but local police departments are catching up fast. From hand-held biometric devices deployed in the field, wide-area surveillance systems that enable police to rewind events across an entire city from satellite images, to the FBI's massive Next Generation Identification system, domestic law enforcement is doubling down on so-called 'intelligence led policing'. Futuristic technology is the name of the game. Your privacy and freedom from government control are at best afterthoughts.

Unfortunately, police appear less than interested in how the new tools upset the power balance between the state and the people. Even worse, most of the technologies in use haven't been proven effective in public safety terms.

In the report embedded above, an investigation by KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting, an officer says that while technologies like ubiquitous surveillance cameras may give people pause today, he thinks people will not only get used to them, but will eventually demand them.

In another part of the report, the journalists interview a man who runs a company called Persistent Surveillance Solutions, which sells a Google Earth-style wide-area surveillance system that allows law enforcement to rewind events in real-time, to follow a car backwards as it moves through a city. Initially developed for US soldiers in overseas wars, the system's image quality isn't good enough yet to be introduced in US courts, police say, but that will change rapidly.

There's no question that police are enamored with surveillance technology. Federal grant programs enable departments to gobble it up, whether or not it actually works. And as far as our rights are concerned? "People have just gotten used to being watched, for the most part," claims one officer.

As Jennifer Granick says, we often assume that if we are giving up our privacy, the program violating it necessarily works to protect public safety. Time and again, however, we've learned the hard way that this tradeoff often doesn't actually exist.

Here in Boston, this lesson has been particularly painful. After the Boston Marathon bombings, the FBI's billion-dollar face recognition program failed when it counted most. In an interview with Vocativ, an FBI spokesman says that agents tried to use the Bureau's face recognition program to determine the identities of the Tsarnaev brothers, before agents decided to release photos to the public. We all know what happened next.

Why are we allowing law enforcement to take away our freedom when we aren't getting any public safety benefit in exchange? Whenever police or government officials tell us we need to give away some of our privacy in exchange for public safety, we should first demand that they prove the technology or new power will actually do what they say it will. The character of our society and our world is at stake. Let's base this debate in facts, please.

© 2019 ACLU of Massachusetts.