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The headline from Wired.com sent local journalists scrambling: “Virginia Police Have Been Secretly Stockpiling Private Phone Records.”
The story drew national attention and garnered follow-up stories from USA Today, The Virginian-Pilot and the Daily Press. Penned by G.W. Schulz with the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, the story was the first to report the existence of the Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network (HRTASN), a program where five local police departments share the phone records of those they suspect of committing crimes.
It’s just one example of the way our society is under more surveillance than ever before.
As technology has advanced, so have the ways that governmental agencies, corporations and private citizens keep tabs on us. There was the case of the teenager near Minneapolis whom Target sent pregnancy coupons based on her shopping habits. By tracking her purchases the corporation knew she was pregnant before her father did.
After the shootings of two Roanoke journalists on live TV in August, state troopers used an automatic license plate reader—which scans and stores the license plate number of every passing car—to locate suspect Vester Lee Flanagan. In Northern Virginia, a man is suing the Fairfax County Police Department for using this same device to monitor his movements, even though he’s not suspected of criminal activity.
In August, North Dakota’s state legislature not only granted law enforcement agencies the right to use drones for surveillance, but also authorized them to use non-lethal force, meaning police could soon be tasing suspects from the skies.
Consider the spate of police brutality videos—many of the victims African-American men—that have surfaced in the past couple years. Accusations of police brutality can now be backed up by normal citizens recording video on their smartphones. Law enforcement agencies are feeling increased pressure to adopt body cameras for officers and dashboard cameras for vehicles, with local police departments paying millions in the past year to implement the technology.
In ways we’re aware of—and in ways we’re not—surveillance is becoming a ubiquitous presence in our daily lives.
While there were incidents that preceded it, the national conversation about body cameras kicked off with the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. An investigation proved no wrongdoing in the shooting of the unarmed teenager by police, but it ignited a tinderbox of racial tension across the country.
It’s a truth that Neil Richards is well aware of. A law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Richards lives just eight miles from Ferguson. Richards’ interest in surveillance and its effects on society has led him to contribute articles to the Harvard Law Review, CNN, and pen the book Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age.
As much as Richards might advocate for body cameras under certain conditions, he says surveillance can harm more than just those who are suspected of criminal activity. “Anytime people are watched, they act differently,” Richards says. “They act in ways that are more conventional, that are more in line with social expectations—particularly the social expectations of the watcher.”
In the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about America’s surveillance programs, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and a privacy advocate studied Google search terms. After learning that the National Security Agency was monitoring the computer activities of millions of innocent citizens, the study found that people were not only less likely to look up terms like “anthrax” or “bomb,” but avoided embarrassing search terms like “bulimia” or “divorce lawyer.”
For a society that prides itself on free thought and free speech, the knowledge of being under surveillance can have a stifling effect, Richards says. People are less likely to express themselves, protest or practice dissent. He contends that the ability to explore unconventional ideas is vital to a free people and points out that many western ideas that we now take for granted—like equal rights for all, or a government of the people—were once considered radical notions.
Surveillance can also be abused in human hands. When the FBI surveilled Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the interest of seeing if he was under the sway of communism, they instead uncovered that he was engaging in extramarital affairs. The FBI attempted to blackmail him to stop his civil rights efforts, going as far as sending him an anonymous letter implying that he should kill himself.
“Any kind of power, when it is unchecked, tends to be abused,” Richards says.
But surveillance by itself is not the problem, he adds. It’s a tool, and it can work toward virtuous goals. The installation of cameras inside a prison, for instance, can deter misconduct from both inmates and guards. Surveillance aided law enforcement in their efforts to find the Roanoke shooter and helped identify the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. For law enforcement, the benefits of surveillance are many.
“Surveillance is neither all good nor all bad,” Richards says. “We talk about privacy and surveillance as though we all only like one or the other. Actually, all of us like both. Parents surveil their children but probably don’t want to have their friends hide cameras in their own bedrooms.”
As video evidence continues to play a critical role in police brutality cases across the country, many are clamoring for body cameras on all active duty officers. The hope is that the cameras will both assist citizens who have been victims of the overreach of law enforcement and help officers when they are incorrectly accused of misconduct.
An example of this played out in Rialto, Calif., where the use of officer force fell by 60 percent and citizen complaints against police dropped 88 percent in the first year after body cameras were introduced. But even this may have pitfalls.
“Somebody wearing a body camera—if they’re able to turn it off—it can become a benefit to the police,” says Richards. “They can turn the camera off; they can play to the camera. Someone working with one of these cameras all the time is going to become quite skilled in using it.”
It’s an opinion shared by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. “Body cameras are only as good as the policies that are written to guide their use,” she says, arguing that those suspected of a crime should have access to the same body camera footage as police. “If the policies aren’t in place that ensure transparency and accuracy, then you end up with a further erosion of trust because they’re nothing more than spy cameras that are mounted on people’s bodies.”
Locally, six of Coastal Virginia’s seven major cities have adopted body cameras for its officers, with Virginia Beach the lone holdout, although in a recent Virginian-Pilot article, Virginia Beach Police Capt. Todd Jones estimates the implementation of cameras in early 2017.
For his part, Richards is worried about financial cost (cameras can cost hundreds of dollars apiece; the service contracts for each can cost thousands), as well as how the body cams may impair officers’ safety. “They can be quite distracting for the police if they’re worried about how they look on camera,” Richards says. “They might be inhibited in doing their duties in a way that might make a difference in their safety.”
“I think they should also think about whether it is worth the money of adopting them. There are lot of things police need to spend their money on, and their budgets are finite. It’s not at all clear to me that police body cameras should be at the top of the list for law enforcement.”
The ACLU of Virginia is working to arm citizens with their own surveillance methods. While citizens are allowed to film law enforcement during an altercation, there have been instances where individual officers have confiscated equipment and deleted videos.
To combat this, the ACLU of Virginia is working to unveil a smartphone app called “Mobile Justice” that will record audio and video. Even if a phone is locked, the app will allow users to record at the touch of a button, and the videos will be immediately uploaded to the ACLU’s servers.
Where some might have previously dismissed claims of police brutality out of hand, the increase of these user-generated videos has provided proof for these accusations.
“When you have a picture of an incident, it’s far more powerful than somebody saying, ‘I saw something happen,’ because the credibility of the witness isn’t an issue,” Gastañaga says.