Beware the Plugged-In Cop


Local police agencies are using rapidly emerging surveillance technology to collect, store and share information about “everyday Americans…on a level that has never happened before,” says Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Lynch spoke at the annual convention of the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) in San Francisco this week at a panel sponsored by Criminal Justice Journalists.

Lynch, whose San Francisco-based nonprofit serves as a civil liberties watchdog, said the data collection is driven by the availability of cheap electronic gadgetry and a post- 9/11 police focus on terrorism.

She said her organization sees the trend across the breadth of American law enforcement agencies, in cities big and small.

“I think every police department in America has the potential to delve into it,” Lynch said, noting that the use of such surveillance tools is more likely when there is a “commander who happens to be an electronics buff.”

She said the sweeping data collection–with devices including fixed closed-circuit surveillance cameras, wearable police cameras, license-plate readers, Stingray cellphone trackers, GPS devices, drones, and iris, face and voice recognition tools–raises fundamental civil liberties issues.

The collected data is shared among various police agencies, who are able to create patterns and profiles of individual citizens, added panelist Ali Winston, an independent journalist who has covered police surveillance issues for the Center for Investigative Reporting and other outlets.

Winston said the technology is “driving a fundamental shift in American policing.”

Much of the technology has been adapted from military uses, he said.

“You have a convergence between the anti-terrorism function and the law enforcement function,” Winston said. Lynch called it “a blurring of the line.”

A third panelist, Demian Bulwa of the San Francisco Chronicle, said a question is often left unasked when it comes to the burgeoning police surveillance systems: Do they help prevent or solve crime?

He said, for example, that the Chronicle had found that San Francisco's system of police surveillance cameras was nearly useless in crime-fighting because the camera feeds were not monitored.

“A lot of it doesn't work at all, and that's kind of an untold story, beyond the privacy issue,” Bulwa said.

The four-day IRE convention, which ends June 29, is attended by 1,600 journalists.

David J. Krajicek is a contributing editor of The Crime Report and a veteran criminal justice journalist. A true crime author, he writes “The Justice Story” for the New York Daily News and is a 2014 fellow with the Fund for Investigative Journalism. He welcomes comments from readers.

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