How Police Fund Surveillance Technology is Part of the Problem

By Matthew Guariglia and Dave Maass

Law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local level are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on surveillance technology in order to track, locate, watch, and listen to people in the United States, often targeting dissidents, immigrants, and people of color. EFF has written tirelessly about the harm surveillance causes communities and its effect is well documented. What is less talked about, but no less disturbing, are the myriad ways agencies fund the hoarding of these technologies.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice reported on the irresponsible and unregulated use and deployment of police surveillance measures in the town of Calexico, California. One of the most notable examples of the frivolous spending culture includes spending roughly $100,000 in seized assets on surveillance equipment (such as James Bond-style spy glasses) to dig up dirt on city council members and complaint-filing citizens with the aim of blackmail and extortion. Another example: a report from the Government Accountability Office showed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers used money intended to buy food and medical equipment for detainees to instead buy tactical gear and equipment.

Drawing attention to how police fund surveillance technology is a necessary step, not just to exposing the harm it does, but also to recognize how untransparent and unregulated the industry is. Massive amounts of funding for surveillance have allowed police to pay for dozens of technologies that residents have no control over, or even knowledge about. When police pay for use of predictive policing software, do town residents get an inside look at how it works before it deploys police to arrest someone? No, often because that technology is “proprietary” and the company will claim that doing so would give away trade secrets. Some vendors even tell police not to talk to the press about it without the company’s permission or instruct cops to leave use of the technology out of arrest reports. When law enforcement pays private companies to use automated license plate readers, what oversight do the surveilled have to make sure that data is safe? None—and it often isn’t safe. In 2019, an ALPR vendor that was hacked allowed 50,000 Customs and Border Patrol license plate scans to leak onto the web.

Law enforcement will often frame surveillance technology as being solely a solution to crime–but when viewed as a thriving industry made up of vendors and buyers, we can see that police surveillance has a whole lot more to do with dollars and cents. And often it’s that money that’s driving surveillance decisions, and not the community’s interests.

How Police Fund Surveillance:

Asset Forfeiture

Civil asset forfeiture is a process that allows law enforcement to seize money and property from individuals suspected of being involved in a crime before they have been convicted or sometimes before they’ve even been charged. When a local law enforcement agency partners with a federal agency it can apply for a share of the resources seized through a process called “equitable sharing.” Law enforcement often spends these funds on electronic surveillance, such as wiretaps, but also on other forms of surveillance technology, such as automated license plate readers.

Private Benefactors

Wealthy individuals can have an immense impact on public safety, and are often the sources behind large scale surveillance systems. Baltimore’s “Aerial Investigation Research,” which would place a spy plane over the city, was funded in part by billionaires Laura and John Arnold, who put up $3.7 million to fund the program. Another billionaire, Ripple’s Chris Larson, has donated millions to neighborhood business districts throughout the San Francisco Bay Area to install sophisticated camera networks to deter property crime. The San Francisco Police Department was given live access to these cameras for over a week in order to spy on BLM protestors, which invaded their privacy and violated a local surveillance ordinance.

In Atlanta, businessman Charlie Loudermilk gave the city $1 million in order to create the Loudermilk Video Integration Center where police receive live feeds from public and private cameras.

These grants, gifts, and donations illustrate the imbalance of power when it comes to decisions about surveillance technology.

Federal Grants

The federal government often pursues its nationwide surveillance goals by providing money to local law enforcement agencies. The U.S. Department of Justice has an entire office devoted to these efforts: the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJS). Through BJS, local agencies can apply for sums ranging from tens of thousands to millions of dollars for police equipment, including surveillance technology. Through Justice Assistance Grants (JAGs), agencies have acquired license plate readers and mobile surveillance units, along with other surveillance technologies. BJA even has a special grant program for body-worn cameras.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has paid local agencies to acquire surveillance technology along the U.S.-Mexico border through the Urban Area Security Initiative and Operation Stonegarden, a program that encourages local police to collaborate on border security missions.

Private Foundations

Many foundations provide technology, or funds to purchase technology, to local law enforcement. This process is similar to the “dark money” phenomenon in election politics: anonymous donors can provide money to a non-profit, which then can pass it on to law enforcement.

Police foundations receive millions of dollars a year from large corporations and individual donors. Companies like Starbucks, Target, Facebook, and Google all provide money to police foundations which go on to buy equipment ranging from long guns to full surveillance networks.

According to ProPublica, in 2007, Target single-handedly paid for the software at LAPD’s new state-of-the-art surveillance center.

Kickbacks Between Surveillance Vendors and Police Departments

Because selling police surveillance tech is such a lucrative industry, it is no surprise that an economy has cropped up of shady and unregulated kick back schemes. Under these arrangements, police receive economic incentives to promote the adoption of certain surveillance equipment–in their own jurisdiction, to the people they should be protecting, and even to other towns, states, and countries.

Microsoft developed the sweeping city-wide surveillance system, Domain Awareness Systems, for the New York City Police Department, which was built gradually over years and cost $30 million. Its formal unveiling in 2012 led Microsoft to receive a slew of requests to buy the technology from other cities. Now, according to the New York Times, the NYPD receives 30% of “gross revenues from the sale of the system and access to any innovations developed for new customers.”

This leads to a disturbing question that undergirds many of these public-private surveillance partnerships in which police get kickbacks: Does our society actually need that much surveillance, or are the police just profiting off its proliferation? The NYPD and Microsoft make money when a city believes it needs to invest in a large-scale surveillance system. That undermines our ability to know if the system actually works at reducing crime, because its users have an economic interest in touting its effectiveness. It also means that there are commercial enterprises that profit when you feel afraid of crime.

Ring, Amazon’s surveillance doorbells, now has over 1,300 partnerships with police departments across the United States. As part of this arrangement, police are offered free equipment giveaways in exchange for a number of residents downloading their Neighbors app or using a town’s discount code to purchase a Ring camera. These purchases are often subsidized by the town itself.

This raises the very troubling question: do police think you need a camera on your front door because your property is in danger, or are they hustling for a commission from Amazon when they make a sale?

This arrangement is sure to deepen the public’s distrust of police officers and their public safety advice. How would people know if safety tips are motivated by an attempt to sow fear, and by extension, sell cameras and build an accessible surveillance network?

They Don’t Buy Surveillance Equipment, They Use Yours 

Throughout the country, police have been increasingly relying on private surveillance measures to do the spying they legally or economically cannot do themselves. This includes Ring surveillance doorbells people put on their front door, license plate readers homeowner’s associations mount at the entrance to their community, and full camera networks used by business improvement districts. No matter who controls surveillance equipment, police will ask to use it.

Thus, any movement toward scrutinizing how police fund surveillance must also include scrutiny of our own decisions as private consumers. The choice of individuals to install their own invasive technology ultimately enables police abuse of the technology. It also allows police to circumvent measures of transparency and accountability that apply to government-owned surveillance technology.

Conclusion:

Community Control of Police Surveillance (CCOPS) measures around the country are starting to bring public awareness and transparency to the purchase and use of surveillance tech. But there are still too few of these laws ensuring democratic control over acquisition and application of police technology.

With police departments increasingly spending more and more money for access to face recognition, video surveillance, automated license plate readers, and dozens of other specific pieces of surveillance tech, it’s time to scrutinize the many dubious and opaque funding streams that bankroll them. But oversight alone will likely never be enough, because funding is in the billions and comes from various hard-to-trace sources, new technologies are always on the rise, and their uses mostly go unregulated and undisclosed.

So we must push for huge cuts in spending on police surveillance technology across the nation. This is a necessary step to protect privacy, freedom, and racial justice.

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