Responding to a troubling rise in law enforcement’s use of high-tech surveillance devices that are often hidden from the communities where they’re used, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today launched the Street-Level Surveillance Project (SLS), a Web portal loaded with comprehensive, easy-to-access information on police spying tools like license plate readers, biometric collection devices, and “Stingrays.’’
The SLS Project addresses an information gap that has developed as law enforcement agencies deploy sophisticated technology products that are supposed to target criminals but that in fact scoop up private information about millions of ordinary, law-abiding citizens who aren’t suspected of committing crimes. Government agencies are less than forthcoming about how they use these tools, which are becoming more and more sophisticated every year, and often hide the facts about their use from the public. What’s more, police spying tools are being used first in low-income, immigrant, and minority communities—populations that may lack access to information and resources to challenge improper surveillance.
“Law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local level are increasingly using sophisticated tools to track our cell phone calls, photograph our vehicles and follow our driving patterns, take our pictures in public places, and collect our fingerprints and DNA. But the public doesn’t know much about those tools and how they are used,’’ said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. “The SLS Project provides a simple but in-depth look at how these surveillance technologies work, who makes and uses them, and what kind of data they are collecting. We hope that community groups, advocacy organizations, defense attorneys, and individuals all take advantage of the information we’ve gathered.”
The SLS Project website went live today with extensive information on biometric technologies which collect fingerprints, DNA, and face prints as well as on automated license plate readers (ALPRs)—cameras mounted on patrol cars and on city streets that scan and record the plates of millions of cars across the country. Each topic includes explainers, FAQs, infographics, and links to EFF’s legal work in courts and legislatures. Information about “Stingrays’’—devices that masquerade as cell phone towers and trick mobile phones into connecting with them to track phone locations in real time—drones, and other surveillance technologies will be added in the coming months.
“The public has heard or read so much about NSA spying, but there’s a real need for information and resources about surveillance tools being used by local law enforcement on our home turf. These technologies are often adopted in a shroud of secrecy, but communities deserve to understand these technologies and how they may be violating our rights,’’ said EFF Activist Nadia Kayyali. “The SLS Project is a much-needed tool that can help communities under surveillance start a conversation about how to advocate for limiting or stopping their use.’’
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