Privacy SOS

Part II. Expanding Surveillance Powers and Technology

Expanding the Homeland Security Industry

In July 2010, The Washington Post published the results of a two-year investigation into the secretive, swiftly growing national security bureaucracy. “Top Secret America” estimated that 1,200 government agencies and 1,900 private companies are now working in counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence programs at 10,000 hidden sites that constitute an “alternative geography of the United States.” Some 1,190,998 people (we estimate that’s one person for WA_3USA-Freedom_RSevery 163 working age Americans) now have “top secret” security clearance. They produce 80,000 often redundant reports each year for an intelligence community that is drowning in information. The government has essentially lost control over what private contractors do and how much they cost.

Giants of the military industrial complex – including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon – have established homeland security divisions to go after homeland security dollars, in what has been termed “a gold rush, a national security bubble.” They are getting huge contracts to build 21st century surveillance systems, with often dismal results. For instance, a report found that “413 government IT projects totaling more than $25 billion in FY2008 alone were poorly planned, poorly performing, or both.” Lockheed Martin dropped the ball on the FBI’s $305 million Sentinel computer system overhaul, and Boeing used a “significant portion” of the $300 million spent on Railhead – a failed effort to fix the terrorist watch database – on renovating one of its buildings.

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Smaller companies, many of them Boston-based, are taking advantage of the “national security bubble” to develop databases, data mining and data sharing systems, computer programs that hone in on suspicious activity independent of human minders, facial recognition and iris scan technologies, and the new generation of smart video cameras and surveillance camera networks. Their products are purchased by state and local law enforcement, with the help of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants. Some police chiefs have complained that federal dollars are available for expensive, often useless, high tech equipment, but not for cops on the beat.


Airports are a testing ground for efforts to find technological fixes for the terrorism threat. Despite reports that full-body scanners would not detect all explosives and may entail health risks, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is paying $300 million to purchase 1,800 machines at a cost of $170,000 each.

The DHS is meanwhile funding research to see whether low-level lasers and biometric sensors measuring eye dilation, blink rate, skin temperature, respiration, fidgeting, heart rate, lip curls and muscle flickers can be used to detect terrorists at airports. Will devices succeed where human observation has failed? The TSA program which trained 3,000 behavior detection officers to spot suspicious behavior was found to have no scientific validity, to have missed travelers linked to failed plots and to amount to little more than racial profiling.

Take a look at the Government Accountability Office’s report on naked scanners.

Mass Focus: Local Homeland Security Industry

massachusetts_institute_technologyMassachusetts has long been a technology superpower in the United States. According to the official state website, “In 2006, 2,435 Massachusetts companies secured DoD and DHS contracts valued at $9.8 billion.  Of this value, $8.1 billion – or 83% of the contract value – represents work performed in our state.”

From small start-up companies manufacturing biometric technologies to major powerhouses like Raytheon and Northrup Grumman with their many years of combined weapons production, the Commonwealth is home to many of the brightest engineers and draws in billions of dollars in federal defense spending. Many of the best engineering minds in the world are drawn to MIT and Harvard, and some of them never leave the region.

Technology companies in the state have jumped on the homeland security industry bandwagon, following the money coming down from DHS and the military. A few of those companies include the following:

L-1 Identity Solutions: With offices in Billerica, L-1 is one of the most important players in the global biometrics market. The firm is responsible for the State Department’s facial recognition and iris scanning system, and has many significant contracts with government agencies both in the United States and abroad. Investigative journalist Naomi Klein, writing for Rolling Stone in May 2008, shows that L-1 licensed its technology to a Chinese firm that was working to develop surveillance technology for the repressive Chinese government. Klein’s source, at the Chinese firm, admitted to her that his technology, if selected by the government, would be used to help put down and repress dissident movements and track anti-government activists. Read more about L-1 and its checkered past.

Bi2 Technologies: This small company just received a major contract to provide mobile facial and iris recognition systems to the Brockton Police Department and the Plymouth County Sherrif’s office. Check out this video to see how the system works.

InterSense: Based in Bedford, InterSense creates “miniaturized, inertial-based, precision motion tracking technology. InterSense’s patented motion tracking products enable realistic interaction with computer graphics for demanding applications.”

American Science & Engineering: A Billerica company, this firm has manufactured backscatter technology that can be deployed in moving vehicles. The technology allows for police to see the contents of a vehicle from the outside, using the same system employed by the “naked scanner” machines now in airports nationwide.

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