Pushing back police surveillance: Annual review 2021


A year after the police murder of George Floyd, black-led protests against police violence continue, as does opposition to police agencies across the country expanding their surveillance tools and unnecessarily piling up personal data. EFF stands with protesters against police abuse and stands up for the core rights to privacy, speech and protest threatened by police surveillance. This year we went to court to hold the police accountable, support positive proposals for regulation and defunding, and publish records of police surveillance.

Surveillance in San Francisco

The San Francisco Board of Directors started the year vote unanimously in favor of special business districtslike the Union Square Business Improvement District (USBID)Disclose new monitoring plans to the board. The board acted as part of an EFF examination and legal action That exposed the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) spying on black-led protests against police violence last year. The SFPD monitored the demonstrations using the USBID’s camera network.

EFF welcomes the board’s small step towards transparency, but the city continues to defend the illegal surveillance by the SFPD. In October 2020, EFF sued the SFPD on behalf of three activists who helped organize last year’s protests in the city. This fall, EFF asked the court Decide that the SFPD is in violation of the city’s groundbreaking surveillance technology ordinance and prohibit the SFPD from using the USBID cameras without the board’s prior approval. While the SFPD initially claimed it did not monitor the camera feed, one SFPD officer admitted during a testimony that she repeatedly looked at the camera feed during the eight days the department had access.

Privacy on the go

EFF is also in court to protect your privacy from Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) that police use to gather large databases of location and other sensitive information about millions of drivers. In October we have filed a lawsuit on behalf of immigration lawyers to prevent the Marin County Sheriff of California from sharing his ALPR data with over 400 extra-state agencies and 18 federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Violates two state laws.

EFF was published earlier this year Data Driven 2: California Dragnet, a new collection of public records and a dataset shedding light on ALPR use by police forces across California. In 2019 alone, only 82 agencies collected more than 1 billion license plate scans using ALPRs. However, 99.9% of this monitoring data was not actively related to an investigation when it was collected. In Tiburon and Sausalito in Northern California and Beverly Hills and Laguna Beach in Southern California, an average vehicle is scanned by ALPRs every few miles. EFF supports state legislation which stipulates shorter retention periods for ALPR data, reviews the data queries annually and tightens other regulations.

The police look down on you

In a big win this summer, the fourth district appeals court won locked Baltimore Use data from aerial surveillance of people’s movements across the city. During a six-month pilot phase, the surveillance aircraft continuously recorded coverage of 90 percent of the city for an estimated 12 hours a day. During Baltimore’s spending board terminated the surveillance contract prematurely, the city has retained some of the location data and has exercised a search right.

The EFF, along with several other organizations, filed an amicus brief with the court arguing that Baltimore’s detailed mapping of the population of an entire city violated the Fourth Amendment and affected different color communities. The court agreed, and Chief Judge Gregory, in a mighty way consensus opinion, stressed that black communities “tend to be overly monitored, leading to excessive arrest rates and increased exposure to police violence” because black communities are “monitored”.

EFF has also joined other struggles against aerial surveillance. Earlier this year, St. Louis declined a similar version of Baltimore’s tracking program following an awareness campaign and pressure from EFF and several local community organizations. We also advocates Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s legislation to severely restrict the amount of dangerous military equipment, including surveillance drones, that the Department of Defense can distribute to local and state law enforcement agencies. And in November the ACLU of Northern California published records and footage the California Highway Patrol’s extensive video surveillance of black-led police violence protests last year.

The surveillance grab bag

This year, the EFF also postponed other police surveillance instruments. At the beginning of the year the Oakland City Council did voted unanimously Strengthen its Surveillance and Community Security Ordinance by banning the government’s use of predictive policing algorithms and a range of biometric surveillance such as voice recognition. EFF approved a Maine bill that would invalidate the state’s “Fusion Center,” which coordinates surveillance and information sharing between federal law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and local and state police, and often threatens freedom of speech and the right to protest. We continued too call google advocate for its users against geofence search warrants and to be more transparent about the search warrants received and their handling. During protests against racial justice in Kenosha, Wisconsin, federal police used at least 12 geofence searches to force Google to reveal information about anyone near the property damage – but possibly within a soccer field.

We have made a lot of strides this year to protect your privacy and freedom of expression from police surveillance, but the fight continues. ONEs the new year is approaching, the coming weeks are a good time to get in touch with your local representatives. Ask them to stand by you and your neighbors in the fight against government surveillance.

This article is part of our year in review series. Read more articles on the fight for digital rights in 2021.


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