Federal Grants Going to Surveillance of People’s Everyday Movements


Federal grants of $7 million awarded to Oakland were meant largely to help thwart terror attacks at its bustling port. Instead, says the New York Times, the money is going to a police initiative that will collect and analyze reams of surveillance data from around town, from gunshot-detection sensors in the barrios to license plate readers mounted on police cars patrolling the city's upscale hills. The new system, set to begin next summer, is the latest example of cities’ compiling and processing large amounts of “big data” for routine law enforcement.

The system underscores how technology has enabled the tracking of people in many aspects of life. The police can monitor social media posts to look for evidence of criminal activities; transportation agencies can track commuters' toll payments when drivers use an electronic pass; and the National Security Agency scooped up telephone records of millions of cellphone customers. Like the Oakland effort, other pushes to use new surveillance tools in law enforcement are supported with federal dollars. Critics say Oakland’s program, which will create a central repository of surveillance information, will also gather data about the everyday movements and habits of law-abiding residents, raising legal and ethical questions about tracking people so closely.

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