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Extending the Surveillance State During the Pandemic

In New York City, police were ordered to enforce social distancing, often increasing interactions between police and citizens at a time when doing so can jeopardize the lives of both groups.

But these measures are being deployed unequally, with minority communities bearing the brunt of such tactics. A breakdown of arrests and summonses by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office shows 35 of the 40 people arrested for social distancing violations from March 17 to May 4 are Black.

“It would be great if the mayor would take a stronger stance because we know that ‘equal’ policing has not and will not happen, so we need more leadership in this area,” said Simone Gamble of Justice Committee, a NYC-based police reform group that teaches citizens how to monitor police by offering “cop-watch trainings,” and during the pandemic they advocate social distancing and wearing mask and gloves.

It is exactly this kind of counter-surveillance that produced viral images recently of NYPD officers “handing out masks to crowds of white park-goers while violently attacking and arresting several Black and Latino residents for not properly distancing themselves,” according to

“[The NYPD] is taking this moment to be emboldened in their attacks on our communities and using social distancing enforcement as cover,” Gamble says.

Indeed, police departments are embracing new technologies during this period. This has, in part, been fueled by Congress’ third COVID-19 stimulus bill, which allocates more than $1 billion for the Department of Justice, $850 million of which it grants to local law enforcement agencies that can use the funds to obtain surveillance technologies.

Several agencies have deployed drones to broadcast announcements at parks, beaches, and homeless camps to enforce social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Some departments have signaled interest in outfitting drones with thermal imaging cameras to detect feverish persons in public, raising concerns by civil liberties groups.

Kentucky had been using GPS-enabled ankle monitors to enforce 14-day quarantines. West Virginia implemented a similar program, a benefit to prison profiteer GEO Group whose devices will be used in the program. Hawaii is considering deploying ankle monitors as well.

Companies like Clearview AI and Planatir have been fielding calls about developing new technologies to enforce social distancing and quarantines, according to Reuters, as law-enforcement agencies seek to expend their tools.

Facial recognition software, enabled by data sets culled from social media networks (sometimes in violation of user agreements), has been used to monitor people who have tested positive for COVID-19. States such as Alabama, Florida, and Massachusetts are sharing such data with first responders, who could use this data as a pretext to subject citizens to unwarranted searches and surveillance, which would be illegal at any other time and may be illegal even now. Some 911 agencies are using this information to flag addresses of persons who have tested positive when they make emergency calls.

This is at a time when crimes are at a historic low. NYPD crime statistics show a 28.5% drop in crimes in April 2020 compared to April 2019. Chicago reported a drop of 30% over the same period, though gun violence in June 2020 soared. Police accountability activists are pushing local lawmakers to reallocate policing budgets toward social services and essential services like education and health care.

But we may have already gone down the road to ever-greater surveillance as tech companies and law enforcement work together to reimagine aspects of society.

“We saw what happened after 9/11 in terms of the Patriot Act and all kinds of enhanced policing and surveillance that went on under the guise of safety and the guise of security, and now we have a situation ... that gives an entree to law enforcement and the judicial system to take liberties with policing procedures,” said Flint Taylor, founding member of the People’s Law Office in Chicago. “We have to guard against what will no doubt be racially motivated attempt to further encroach on people’s civil liberties.” 


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