Surveillance, spying, and infiltration has a long history in the United States — from the Police Red Squads in the 1880s, to the FBI starting in the early 1900s and its Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in the 1950s, to the creation of the National Security Agency (NSA) in 1952 — yet the scale, scope, and development of the surveillance state in United States over the last decade has been unprecedented. What is also alarming is the intersection of state actors, technology, and private corporations, which is making this “surveillance-industrial-complex” an arena ripe for long-term political grandstanding and profiteering utilizing technologies to infiltrate, neutralize, and suppress organizing and resistance by the people.
Furthermore, surveillance systems are increasingly integrated and interconnected across domains of public services. Data collected in one domain — for example, law enforcement — are increasingly shared and used for decision-making in other domains — public housing, for instance.
The “surveillance-industrial-complex” has profound but poorly understood impacts on our political, structural, economic, and cultural lives. These policies and practices violate our civil and human rights, and undermine basic democratic principles; they are, in short, tools of social control masked by the rhetoric of national security and public safety.
However, the solutions that have been posed so far are limited in their scope and tend to hover around “protection of privacy” rather than a holistic and robust response informed by a deeper understanding of programs which police our bodies, and the day-to-day issues of poor people, people of color, and community members forever deemed the “other.” Missing in the analysis is an in-depth understanding of how counter-terrorism programs are increasingly getting codified in domestic policing, giving law enforcement agencies and their partners in private and public sector extraordinary powers through protection by national security exemptions.
At the core of this “surveillance-industrial-complex” lies a complex web of information gathering, storing, and sharing. With advancement in technology, traditional policing methods are being reconfigured and intelligence-led policing (“ILP”) methodologies are increasingly being implemented. ILP, or more aptly pre-emptive or speculative policing, involves the collection of information using physical or electronic surveillance; confidential informants; undercover operators, and other overt and covert sources; processing and analysis of information using databases, software and personnel; and sharing and disseminating intelligence between the intelligence community, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as their private and public partners using fusion centers and information-sharing databases. These policing methods are promoted as a set of techniques that will allow law enforcement agencies to identify criminal threats and develop responses which will prevent the actual occurrence of crimes.
There are dire implications with allowing law enforcement agencies to collect huge amounts of information and to use it as an alleged guide for preventing criminal activity. Not only is the logic flawed, but history has revealed countless incidents where innocent people and organizations have been victimized and surveilled by law enforcement for their race, national origin, religion, political beliefs, activism, or perceived threat based on other personal characteristics. Such policies systematically incentivize racial profiling and the invasion of privacy, and also place the establishment of guilt on hunches and suspicion rather than on factual occurrence of crime, thus eroding the principle of innocent until proven guilty. By assuming certain individuals or behaviors are suspicious, this new style of speculative policing treats people as guilty until proven innocent.
A glaring example of racial profiling was highlighted by the recent audit of the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program released in January 2015 by the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Office of Inspector General. The audit revealed overwhelming racial profiling of the Los Angeles Black community. In the race/ethnicity/gender data, of the total SARs sent to fusion centers 30 percent were identified as Black. In the gender count, Black women comprised 50 percent of the total number of women listed. Black communities comprise less than 10 percent of the city’s population, yet the audit clearly highlighted that the Black community was impacted 3 to 1 and black women were impacted 5 to 1 by this counter-terrorism program.
Notably, a previous audit released in March 2013 by the LA Office of Inspector General of LAPD Suspicious Activity Reporting program revealed that, out of a four-month sample of race/descent data, over 82 percent of SARs were filed on individuals belonging to racial groups identified as non-white. The largest number of SARs were filed on African-Americans.
These policies are not limited to law enforcement personnel. Programs such as iWATCH with the tagline “See Something, Say Something” actively recruit community informants, fostering a culture of suspicion and fear, reinforcing social biases, and racial, ethnic, and religious profiling. In fact, the LAPD Inspector General 2015 audit revealed that 81 percent of the SARs were initiated by community informants.
The National Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) initiative was launched by the LAPD in March 2008 following the 9/11 commission report as a counter-terrorism initiative to help “connect the dots.” The SAR program defines suspicious activity as “observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning of terrorism or other criminal activity.” These highly vague concepts of behavioral surveillance and reasonable indication create a speculative standard of suspicion, enabling police officers to base their stops and the first point of contact on hunches and stereotypes, which raises additional concerns about the increase in profiling and the high potential for violence and hyper-reactiveness as witnessed in several recent murders of innocent individuals by law enforcement.
The SAR program authorizes the collection of large quantities of information based on criminal and non-criminal behavior. The non-criminal behaviors deemed ‘suspicious’ under the SAR program include ordinary, everyday activities such as taking pictures, using video cameras, drawing diagrams, using binoculars, or writing notes. Under the Nationwide SAR Initiative (NSI), much of the information gathered is forwarded to local fusion centers, which makes the information available to federal agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Department of Defense. Information is also shared with authorized state, tribal, and local law enforcement agencies around the country as well as private corporations.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in March 2013 revealed the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Program’s rapid growth. The report showed SAR fully operational in 46 states, with 14,200 local law enforcement agencies having the capability to share SARs, and close to 300,000 line officers around the country already trained in SARs program.
The pretext used for the gathering of this information is terrorism prevention, but a scathing 2012 report by the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs called intelligence gathering at fusion centers, of which the LAPD SAR program is a major component, as “flawed, outdated, duplicative, useless, and irrelevant” and expressed deep concern that intelligence gathering was “more often than not unrelated to terrorism.”
Additionally, law enforcement intelligence gathering guidelines on political groups have been revised to place informants within organizations and infiltrate perfectly legal political gatherings and planning for peaceful protest and rallies. For example, changes made to LAPD intelligence gathering guidelines in September 2012 now allow officers to create fictitious online personas to gather information and attend meetings of organizations in order to maintain cover. The revised guidelines authorize the LAPD to use informants or engage in surveillance for up to 180 days (extendable for an additional 180 days) in response to any tip or “information,” without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Electronic surveillance has also been an integral part of LAPD architecture of surveillance. Devices such as the following constantly feed into this massive surveillance apparatus:
- Stingray – Used to track cell phones, mimic cell phone towers, stingrays electronically fool all nearby mobile phones to send their signals into an LAPD computer. That signal reveals to police the location of phones in real-time. But the technology sucks up data of every cell phone in the area including the phone’s unique ID, and phone owners never know police are grabbing their information;
- Trapwire – This street camera style surveillance system is more accurate than modern facial recognition technology. Every few seconds, data picked up at surveillance points are recorded digitally on the spot, then encrypted and instantaneously delivered to a fortified central database center at an undisclosed location to be aggregated with other intelligence. Documents have revealed that LAPD has invested heavily in this;
- Automatic License Plate Reader – These high-speed cameras, mounted on poles and patrol cars, record every passing vehicle’s license plate, along with time, date, and location. The location data collected by these cameras reveal a great deal of personal information;
- Hi-Definition Cameras – LAPD uses high-definition cameras that stream video to a remote command post and is also agile enough for use in densely-packed, large-crowd events. The LAPD Counter Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau surveillance system includes HD cameras that can be easily installed on a temporarily basis for covert investigations and crowd control.
Since 9/11, hundreds of billions of dollars of public funds have been spent on the “War on Terror,” depriving communities of basic necessities such as housing, education, food and health care, while serving massive levels of corporate profit making. In July 2010 the Washington Post released a study titled “Top Secret America” highlighting the extent of corporate involvement. The study revealed at the time of its publication “some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.” Five years later, if the military industrial complex is our marker, one can only guess the level of crony capitalism at work on a so-called war with no geography, no militaries, no Geneva conventions.
But as history has shown, war abroad means war at home. Billions of dollars are being funneled locally to fight the “enemy at home.” Since its formation in 2003, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with 240,000 employees, has spent over $544 billion. DHS programs such as the “Urban Area Security Initiative – UASI” dole out billions of dollars in grants for hyper-militarization of local law enforcement in the US. Battle-tested equipment such as grenade launchers, mine sweepers, long range acoustic devices, are now becoming increasingly visible on the streets to quell and chill protests.
Furthermore, over the last few years, stories have begun to emerge on the use of counter-terrorism investigation waivers by local law enforcement to bypass warrants and other legal requirements and restraints during routine criminal investigations. For example, in January 2013 it was revealed that the LAPD had used stingray technology in far more routine criminal investigations, apparently without the courts’ knowledge that the technology also probes the lives of non-suspects who happen to be in the same neighborhood.
Raising grave concerns is the emerging trend of law enforcement agencies seeking “corporate exemption” in routine public records requests. In June 2014, operators of SWAT teams in Massachusetts claimed they were immune to public records requests about deadly force, incident reports, and more because they were private corporations. Many of the police departments in Massachusetts have created “Law Enforcement Councils” which have incorporated as tax-exempt 501c(3) non-profit organizations, thus claiming corporate status and exempting them from public records requests.
Beside such creative barriers by law enforcement to prevent transparency, there have been direct interventions by the state to seize documents. In June 2014, it was revealed that in response to a routine public records act request by the ACLU to Sarasota Police Department, seeking records on cell phone surveillance resulted in US Marshalls seizing all public documents even after the police department had agreed to comply with the public records request.
There are severe gaps in efforts within the United States to inform and organize the multiple communities disproportionately impacted by the increasing domestic security state, as well as others committed to upholding basic human and civil rights. While much attention has been placed upon litigation, law enforcement agencies continue their assault on our fundamental rights with impunity. The judicial system has generally granted waivers and exclusions to allow such policies and practices to continue unabated. This reconfiguration of policing has a dire impact on the future of democratic rights and robust dissent.
Yet, this environment also creates a critical need and unique opportunity to engage diverse groups in combating policies and law enforcement practices that threaten the human rights and civil liberties of us all and to promote an innovative community education, organizing and advocacy model that exposes, analyzes, and challenges policing that have applications and implications locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.
To date, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition has built the groundwork and infrastructure for an effective effort to expose, challenge, and demand an end to police surveillance and spying in Los Angeles, while also increasing police accountability and transparency more broadly. This intersectional coalition effort has also created a strong model for movements that are grounded in local communities, linked to and strengthened by national organizing and coalition building to challenge the domestic security state beyond Los Angeles. The long-term goal is to broaden existing scope and strategies with an emphasis on intersectional grassroots organizing and mobilization to raise awareness around and effectively challenge the militarization and police spying and surveillance in our daily life, as well as expose and eliminate police infiltration as a tool to derail and neutralize movements for social justice based on current and historic realities.