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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

A New Map Shows the Inescapable Creep of Surveillance

Over 1,300 partnerships with Ring. Hundreds of facial recognition systems. Dozens of cell-site simulator devices. The surveillance apparatus in the United States takes all kinds of forms in all kinds of places—a huge number of which populate a new map called the Atlas of Surveillance.

A collaboration between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the University of Nevada, Reno, Reynolds School of Journalism, the Atlas of Surveillance offers an omnibus look not only at what technologies law enforcement agencies deploy, but where they do it. From automated license plate readers to body cameras to the so-called fusion centers that centrally process scores of surveillance data, the project drives home just how common these sophisticated tools have become. In fact, despite offering 5,300 data points from 3,000 police departments, it’s still only a sample of surveillance’s true sweep.

“We’re never going to be comprehensive,” says Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at EFF who helped lead the project as a visiting professor at the Reynolds School. “If our goal is to keep neck and neck with the growth of the surveillance state, we’d lose.”

Which reinforces the point. The map is unsettling enough in its current configuration. It’s almost impossible to imagine how crowded it would be if it included all of the 18,000 federal, state, county, and local agencies that comprise US law enforcement, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics' count.

Getting the map even this far has been a Herculean task, one that began around 18 months ago. Some of the most common questions the EFF gets from media, Maass says, relate to the distribution of surveillance technology in the US. The EFF had previously done investigatory work around automated license plate readers, and other organizations like Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone maintain their own specific databases. But what about a central repository? One that could answer many of those questions with a click or two? For that, you would need a small army of researchers—or a few hundred journalism students. Enter the Reynolds School.

Maass and the Gi Yun, the Director of the Reynolds School’s Center for Advanced Media Studies, first meted out data-gathering assignments using Google Drive and Google Survey before migrating to the EFF’s Report Back tool, an online portal that automatically parcels out small tasks to volunteers. To prove out the concept, they focused first on the 23 counties across the US-Mexico border, assigning a city or county to a team of students and tasking them with finding out what surveillance tools were in use there. The EFF published the results last September. “That ended up being really frustrating for the students, because they’re looking in small-town Texas for cell-site simulators, which they’re just never going to find,” says Maass.

As they expanded the project’s scope nationally, Maass says, they tried to set the research teams up for happier hunting. By perusing GovSpend, an third-party online repository of government contracts, they could identify broadly which parts of the country had purchased certain types of equipment. The students would then confirm the specific allotments through news articles and public records. Other categories of interest tracked by the map include gunshot detection and predictive policing systems, as well as “video analytics,” a catch-all term for technology that identifies and tracks not faces but objects and patterns. The map also includes 59 “real-time crime centers,” or RTCCs, that centralize and synthesize the data gathered by various technologies in the field.

The Atlas of Surveillance has limitations, chief among them its scope. A casual visitor might type in their county, see no stingray devices or body cameras listed, and assume that means they’re relatively Panopticon-free, when in fact the project may simply not have gotten there yet. The map shows a real-time crime center in Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, but not the gunshot detectors or license plate readers that feed into it. (It does mention those, however, when you click for more information about the RTCC.) The project’s sourcing also relies heavily on local news, an increasingly scarce commodity.

That's less a failing of the Atlas than of the government itself, for not making this type of information more readily accessible to the citizens directly affected by it. Some pockets are better than others; a Maryland state law requires that agencies report any automated license plate readers in its possession, for instance, which in turn gives the map solid data to build on. Other states and counties are relative black holes.

In fairness, the Atlas does disclaim its incompleteness, and provides a link that explains how visitors can collaborate to help fill in its blanks. And Maass points to the growth in the freedom of information community—particularly services like MuckRock, which makes filing Freedom of Information Act requests a cinch—and online government portals as invaluable resources in an age when local reporting has declined. “A lot of the surveillance tech out there isn’t secret, it just hasn’t been aggregated,” he says.

The hundreds of Reynolds School journalism students who worked on the map now know how to dig for this type of information, wherever their professional lives may take them. “They go through the process and see the result,” says Yun. “This is massive data that we’ve tabulated and the public can enjoy and look at in a very efficient, visually appealing way. They can see their work being materialized.”

The Reynolds School will continue to do the yeoman’s work of maintaining and improving on the map; Yun says he’s particularly focused on making the process of entering data more fluid, especially now that the project is welcoming volunteers from the public. (“Earlier it was a little bit clunky,” he says.) And Maass is looking into different customization options that would make parsing the map more manageable, especially as its dataset continues to grow.

For now, despite whatever room for improvement, the Atlas of Surveillance is a powerful reminder of how inescapable spy technology has become all over the US, not just in big cities. “The small town and rural area pervasiveness can’t be ignored here,” says Maass. “You’ll see that there are a lot of drones in rural America. You’ll find that license plate readers are common throughout Georgia and other rural areas. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s surprising, but it’s one of the more valuable things that have come out of it for me.”

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