Police forces across the U.S. are stockpiling massive databases with personal information from millions of Americans who crossed paths with officers but were not charged with a crime, reports the Charleston Post and Courier. A person can end up in one of these databases by doing nothing more than sitting on a public park bench or chatting with an officer on the street. Records can linger forever and be used by police agencies to track movements, habits, acquaintances, and associations – even a person’s marital and job status, The Post and Courier found in an investigation of police practices around the nation.
What began as a method for linking suspicious behavior to crime has morphed into a practice that threatens to turn local police departments into miniature versions of the National Security Agency. In the process, critics contend, police risk trampling constitutional rights, tarnishing innocent people and further eroding public trust. Law enforcement agencies have long used what’s known as field interview or contact cards to document everything from sketchy activity to random encounters with people on the street. The digital age has greatly expanded the power and reach of this tool, allowing police to store indefinitely reams of data on those who draw their interest — long after any potential link to a crime has evaporated. “They pose a different threat than the NSA. … But they can reveal a much more invasive picture of a person’s life,” says Stephanie Lacambra of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based digital-rights advocacy group. “The public should be concerned.” Some 35,000 people, equal to a quarter of the city’s population, appear in the Charleston police database for field contacts, which includes everyone from suspected killers to toddlers and 99-year-olds. One man alone has more than 1,000 entries.