Police Surveillance Technology 101
For decades, local law enforcement agencies’ secret use of surveillance technologies has transformed our towns and cities into oppressive fishbowls in which community members are treated like a prospective criminal to be monitored and scrutinized 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
These high surveillance environments facilitate the unjust and unnecessary tracking, arrest, and imprisonment of community residents, often disproportionately targeting certain communities based on factors such as race, religion, ethnicity, income, and political activities.
Sacrificing our civil rights and civil liberties through unchecked police surveillance is not a path to making ourselves safer. It is only a path to less freedom.
Knoxville Law Enforcement’s Growing Surveillance System
Since the turn of the century, there has been a massive expansion in the use of domestic surveillance, including on the local level, where substantial federal funds have been made available to city governments to purchase and operate surveillance technologies. Meanwhile, surveillance technology has “improved” exponentially, and high-powered devices and software afford law enforcement new capacities to peer into our private lives. This expansion, which was largely sold to the public on national security grounds, has multiplied and mutated far beyond its original purpose and scope, and our right to privacy has suffered as a result.
Government documents show us that in recent years, the Knoxville Police Department has increased their reliance on surveillance technology, from acquiring automatic license plate readers, working with state lawmakers to enhance their ability to use drones to spy on protesters, and signing agreements with powerful corporations like Amazon to access surveillance data.
When KPD acquires new surveillance technology, they do so out of the public eye. If local governments are making policy decisions or deciding how to spend their limited public safety resources, the public has a right to know that funds are being allocated for community surveillance technologies, and to question whether those expenditures are truly the most effective way make their communities safer.
What Tech Does the Knoxville Police Department Use to Watch Us?
In recent years local law enforcement agencies, including the Knoxville Police Department, have embraced unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as “drones,” as powerful surveillance and investigative tools. Law enforcement agencies have conducted surveillance from airplanes and helicopters for decades — including the Department of Homeland Security’s surveillance of George Floyd protests in fourteen cities during the summer of 2020 — but major advances in unmanned technology, optics, and analytics have made their ability to watch communities from the air cheaper, easier, and more invasive than ever.
Drones give the government unprecedented capabilities to track the movements of people. Without clear regulations limiting their use, local police can use drones for mass dragnet surveillance or to surveil political protests and other lawful free speech activities.
According to internal KPD emails, the department has operated at least two drones since 2019. Officer have expressed interest in expanding drone surveillance capacities. In January 2020, the Knoxville Police Department was in contact with state lawmakers to ensure “we have broad discretion to deploy it [at] listed events [including] protests.”
Automatic License Plate Readers
Automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) are mobile or fixed-location cameras that are used to take photographs of license plates, digitize them, and then store, process, and search captured data in real time over the course of months or even years.
When ALPR data is retained by police departments, the government can track where people travel in their cars, including what doctors they go to, what political or religious meetings they attend, and where they sleep at night. Some private companies provide ALPRs to the police free of charge in return for access to the data they collect from private citizens later, such as a vehicle owner they identify as owing outstanding court fees.
KPD has owned and operated License Plate Reader cameras since 2015 and grown its program in the years since. In early 2021, KPD was finalizing a deal with LPR vendor Flock for eight police car-mounted tag reader cameras, funded through a grant provided by the Department of Homeland Security.
Recent reporting has revealed that Amazon helps police departments give free or discounted Ring doorbell cameras to residents, gives police a portal for requesting video and special access to their social app “Neighbors” (which helps neighbors share video clips), and coaches police departments on how to get users to agree to turn over the footage, leveraging this technology into a new — and troubling — surveillance network.
In turn, some police departments have agreed to promote Ring cameras and the Neighbors app and, according to a document obtained by Gizmodo, even to give the company the right to approve or censor what police departments say about Ring.
Amazon has agreements with thousands of police departments around the country, including Knoxville PD. The department signed an agreement with Ring in March 2020.
Facial Recognition Software
Facial recognition software analyzes images of human faces to identify them based on unique individual features compare them against photographs stored in government databases. As mass video surveillance becomes more widespread, local police have begun using the technology to catch ordinary criminals. Combined with mass video surveillance and the government’s vast troves of facial images, they pose a serious threat to privacy and are vulnerable to abuse. Without legal safeguards, the government could use facial recognition software to identify people involved in lawful activities, such as protest marchers, reproductive clinic patients, or gun show patrons.
Studies also show that facial recognition algorithms in use by U.S. law enforcement are statistically worse at identifying Black faces than white faces. Because police investigate the closest match, the software puts innocent Black people at higher risk of police investigation than innocent white people.
KPD has included facial recognition technology in a recent budget request and ACLU-TN is working to determine whether the department has acquired this technology.
Police Surveillance: Civil Liberties on the Line
Racial Justice and Civil Rights
Often, the government’s gaze doesn’t fall on everyone equally. While surveillance technology poses a universal threat to privacy, such technologies are disproportionately used to target people of color and low-income communities. Surveillance has been used by governments throughout history to suppress free speech and intimidate the leaders of political movements.
This unequal deployment of surveillance technologies means that members of these communities or political groups are forced to live under an oppressive level of police scrutiny that used to be reserved only for suspected criminals. Even more dangerous, increased community surveillance often leads to increased encounters between residents and the police. As we know too well, far too many encounters with police lead to injury or death, particularly for Black people.
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees Americans’ privacy and prohibits the government from engaging in warrantless searches; however, today, with the help of stealth surveillance technologies, it is common for law enforcement to secretly spy on the public.
In the past, technical constraints — and the inability of strangers or government actors to see and remember everything — protected our anonymity in public. We could converse with someone in public one time and not worry significantly that the interaction would become widely known. While the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that one has a reduced expectation of privacy in public spaces, it did not anticipate the technological advances that would allow the government to easily identify and track a person as they move through the world, and our privacy laws have struggled to keep up with advances in surveillance technology.
New surveillance technologies — especially systems that allow government investigators to easily monitor our movements in great detail over long lengths of time — challenge our conceptions of solitude, seclusion, and private spaces.
Free Speech and Protest
We should be able to express our minds freely without fear that the government will monitor us, keep a permanent record of our activities, and use that record to harass or coerce us. We certainly shouldn’t have to worry that the very act of offering a dissenting view will invite government scrutiny.
Law enforcement agencies have a long history of surveilling and infiltrating protest movements, particularly Black-led movements. Increased use of drones to monitor protests and public gatherings, as well as law enforcement’s ability to use facial recognition technology to identify and track protesters, could have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights — a danger that is even more pronounced when the protesters being tracked have taken to the streets to protest police brutality against communities of color or to call for reallocation of funds away from police and toward community services.
Freedom of Association
Individuals should be free to live their lives without the fear that their personal, lawful activities and private relationships are being monitored by police.
The First Amendment protects freedom of association, but some investigatory tools have the potential to chill exercise of this right. Surveillance techniques that collect and store vast quantities of information about the locations, movements, and communications of people have the potential to reveal sensitive information about their membership in political, religious, business, labor, fraternal, or other organizations. If surveillance of lawful meetings becomes commonplace, some people may choose to avoid these activities altogether.
Even mass surveillance techniques that do not intentionally target political meetings or places of worship could reveal sensitive information about a person’s associations. Location data, acquired over time by license plate or cell phone tracking, could be used identify an individual as a member of a particular labor union or religious sect, for example.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has long embraced technology to target immigrants. But in recent years, ICE has sought access to local surveillance networks to fuel its deportation machine. A 2019 ACLU lawsuit revealed that over 80 local law enforcement agencies from over a dozen states agreed to share license plate location information with ICE. The agency had access to over billions of data points of location information collected by police. Some local police departments handed driver information over to ICE informally, violating both local law and ICE policies.
ICE access to law enforcement surveillance information brings into focus the risks of unchecked local surveillance expansion.
Take Action: Join the webinar on August 5, 2021
Want to learn more about how police use technology for dragnet surveillance and how communities across the country are working to take back control over police surveillance?
On Thursday, August 5, ACLU-TN hosted a virtual webinar, “They Are Watching: Police Surveillance in Knoxville” to discuss the risks that police surveillance technology poses to cities like Knoxville and the opportunities you have to help reign in law enforcement’s use of technology to spy on Knoxville residents.
The webinar featured Devalle Muhammad of Community Defense of East Tennessee; Chad Marlow, ACLU senior policy counsel; Brandon Buskey, ACLU deputy director for Smart Justice litigation; Knoxville Councilwoman Amelia Parker; and Brandon Tucker, ACLU-TN policy director.
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Review the Documents
Explore more than 500 pages of open records request responses relating to the Knoxville Police Department’s surveillance technology usage.