Technology and surveillance techniques are essentially neutral. Yet, the subject of surveillance inherently raises the delicate balance between technological capabilities that are potentially useful, but which are also capable of being abused when put to the wrong purpose. How? Let’s explore.
The Demographics Unit
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the New York Police Department—joined by veteran CIA officers—built an intelligence-gathering program with the goal of mapping New York region’s ethnic communities, and using undercover officers for surveillance of Muslims: where they shopped, where they ate, and where they prayed. It was known as the demographics unit.
The Demographics Unit used census information in government databases to create a map of ethnic neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Undercover agents—who were known as rakers—then went to these neighborhoods, with the idea of chatting up the locals to determine their ethnicity, and their sentiments.
This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Tracking Muslim Students
The rakers were present in Pakistani communities, in the immediate aftermath of American drone attacks in Pakistan, for the apparent purpose of listening for anti-American rhetoric and reaction to the attacks.
The demographics unit is also said to have tracked Muslim students in colleges across the Northeast. One example of their efforts was the so-called Moroccan Initiative, a formerly secret program that kept tabs on Moroccan neighborhoods. It was begun after suicide bombings killed 45 people in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in 2003, and after Moroccan terrorists were linked to the 2004 train bombing in Madrid.
How Far Can the Fourth Amendment Protect?
New York police put people—including U.S. citizens—under surveillance, and cataloged where they ate, worked and prayed. Almost all of this sort of surveillance is legal. The police can, for example, loiter outside of a particular shop and catalog everyday life in a community.
The general actions of people in a community are open and public, and not generally protected by the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The challenge of judging these sorts of programs is compounded by the fact that New York’s counterintelligence efforts have also been at the core of many of its most successful anti-terrorist programs.
Surveillance: At Odds with Egalitarian Principles?
The exact degree of success is hotly disputed, but it’s undeniable that the NYPD Intelligence Division was, for example, responsible for disrupting a 2004 plot to bomb the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan.
And so, even though scrutiny of Muslim Americans—simply because they are Muslims—seems to be at odds with America’s egalitarian principles, some want programs like this to continue. The New York Police Department’s so-called Moroccan Initiative became public a decade after the 9/11 attacks and, today, it reminds us that police capabilities can, sometimes, be deployed in ways that are inappropriate—even if they’re not, strictly speaking, unlawful.
Learn more about the government’s electronic surveillance programs.
Surveillance through Body Cameras
When it comes to surveillance, in general, we seem to care less about that the use of surveillance technology by the police. It doesn’t excite nearly the same attention, and concern, as does the same activity conducted by the federal government. In some instances, like the use of body cameras, we actually want the police to collect more information than they do now.
In the wake of the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri—and elsewhere—where police were reported to have killed unarmed African-Americans in the course of street patrols and other law-enforcement activity, policymakers across the country have increasingly called for the use of police body cameras. This was a new way of recording police interactions with the public.
Watching the Watchers
The idea was that if these interactions were observed, they were more likely to occur in a lawful and appropriate manner. In other words, we think that surveillance of the police might make the authorities’ performance better—a classic case of watching the watchers.
In highly charged circumstances, the recording of law enforcement interactions with the public might just as readily support the contentions of police officers, who sometimes perform their job under fraught conditions.
Revealing a Different View
In New Mexico, for example, a police helmet camera captured the fatal police shooting of a knife-armed homeless man, as he was turning away—demonstrating an instance in which the police likely seemed to have overreacted.
Conversely, in Celina, Texas, two cameras told different tales of the arrest of a man high on heroin and helped to resolve a dispute over whether the officer had used excessive force. One camera was on the police car’s dashboard, and from its vantage, the officer’s takedown of the suspect might have been viewed as excessive. But the body camera revealed a much different view: the suspect threw a punch at the officer, in an attempt to escape, and only then was dragged to the ground.
Learn more about unauthorized surveillance programs.
Tech Also Saves Police from the Public
Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology have published a study showing that not only do the cameras protect the public from the police, but the cameras also protect the police from the public. In Rialto, California, reports of police use of force fell by 59% after local officers wore body cameras for a year. And there was an even more significant drop in public complaints against the police, which declined by 87% compared to the previous year.
Thomas Jefferson once advised that whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching. Body cameras make this a reality.
Common Questions about Technology and Anti-Crime Surveillance
In the aftermath of 9/11, the NYPD Demographics Unit used census information in government databases to create a map of ethnic neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
The Moroccan Initiative was a secret surveillance program that kept tabs on Moroccan neighborhoods. It was begun after suicide bombings killed 45 people in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in 2003.
In Rialto, California, reports of police use of force fell by 59% after local officers wore body cameras as a means of surveillance for a year.