As police gain access to increasingly advanced surveillance tools, researchers are constructing a nationwide, open-source database of technology to help level the playing field between the companies that sell equipment to departments and the citizens who pay for it.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Atlas of Surveillance uses public information and an army of student journalists to document the tools that local law enforcement use and the spread of equipment like facial recognition technology and drones.The database contains 16 entries for all of New Hampshire. There are fewer entries in part because the state’s police are spread across many small towns instead of large metropolitan police departments that tend to generate more public scrutiny and reporting.
New Hampshire departments use three of the most common technologies found in the database: body-worn cameras, drones and license plate readers. The City of Lebanon maintains a camera registry, where private citizens with cameras like the Amazon Ring can sign up to add their cameras to a larger system of surveillance.
The database also includes New Hampshire’s Information Analysis Center in Concord, one of the country’s 79 fusion center sites. At fusion centers, where a variety of surveillance technologies can be used in one place, local and state law enforcement gather and analyze intelligence with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
An effort in neighboring Maine to close down its own fusion center failed in the state Senate this summer after passing in the House. A whistleblower had accused the center of illegally surveilling gun buyers, environmental protestors and employees at a Israel-Palestine peace building camp.
Dave Maass, the Director of Investigations at Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the Atlas of Surveillance matters because a power imbalance exists between the companies that market this technology to law enforcement and the people affected by how those technologies shape policing, even in subtle or unintentional ways.
“What we find in the country is that there is often this very cozy relationship between surveillance vendors and police officers,” Maass said. Vendors come to law enforcement conferences and try to sell departments on their miracle products, pitches that regular citizens don’t get to witness.
“A lot of decisions are being made about surveillance at closed-door meetings without input from the community about what’s acceptable and what’s needed for the community,” he said.
In some extreme cases, the public doesn’t get to know what it’s paying for.
Concord police’s surveillance tech
One form of technology that doesn’t appear in the database is the “DEU Communications” equipment that cost Concord taxpayers $5,200 this year.
The business services budget line item also appeared in fiscal year 2021, where it is described as as well as the budget from fiscal year 2020, when it cost $5,100 and was called “covert communications equipment.” The technology’s disclosure was the subject of a Supreme Court case the Monitor and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire brought against the City of Concord in 2019.News Source: Concordmonitor