Multiple Surveillance Methods Police Use to Track People

Police across Illinois and the rest of the country are steadily increasing their use of new technology to keep tabs on citizens. While these measures typically aren’t publicized by law enforcement, they are being revealed through public records.

Most law enforcement agencies praise using this technology for crime prevention as well as tracking down suspects. The Brennan Justice Center says these policing methods represent a major threat to free speech, privacy and due process.

Emerging technology used by law enforcement agencies

Surveillance methods by police have gained more attention in the weeks since massive demonstrations erupted across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. These technologies include:

  • Drones: According to a Business Insider report, nearly 170 U.S. police departments had purchased drones by 2016. The crafts can be relatively inexpensive and used for tracking suspects as well as victims, investigating crimes, monitoring traffic and mapping cities.
  • Facial recognition: This technology has advanced enough for police to conduct real-time scans of people in public areas. However, critics say false matches frequently happen, making the method unreliable.
  • Video analytics: This approach uses software to scan footage, much like facial recognition, using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify people and objects that can be tied to a suspect. An IBM version was licensed to several police departments before being withdrawn from the market in early 2019.
  • Social media tracking: Police take advantage of these massive platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, to search for suspects through their individual accounts as well as those of their friends and family. According to a report, nearly 75% of 500 police departments used this method in 2016.
  • Algorithms: Just like something out of the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie “Minority Report,” some departments are using AI to try to predict where future crimes will likely occur, and who will commit them. Little is known about the extent of this technology, but its use has been exposed in New York and California.

Regulation of policing technology is spotty

Even though these methods are new, researchers at Georgetown found local police departments have databases of people’s faces for over half of all American adults. Some cities, like San Francisco, have taken steps to prohibit police from using facial recognition software. However, without a widespread attempt at regulation, there is no clear answer for how or whether police must be transparent over these surveillance methods.