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A Surveillance Scam by Any Other Name Is But a Parasite

Data brokers, such as ShotSpotter, Fog Data Science, and Flock Safety bill themselves as surveillance companies assisting law enforcement in its quest to keep communities safer. But in actuality, they seemingly bilk taxpayers by selling bulk information to police agencies who may then use the information in violation of the rights of those taxpayers.

At a debate in a Detroit City Council meeting over whether to spend $7 million to expand the City’s contract with ShotSpotter, an exasperated Detroit Police Chief James E. White described ShotSpotter as “nothing but an investigative lead. It has no video. It has no voice recordings. It responds to the percussion of a gunshot, period.” While White intended to prove that ShotSpotter was not a “mass surveillance tool,” his comment revealed what many had known for weeks: ShotSpotter’s microphones do nothing more than record entire neighborhoods on behalf of the police.

The company blankets neighborhoods with microphones that purportedly detect only sounds above 120 decibels. If the sound is believed to be a gunshot, police are dispatched to the area. In a nutshell, ShotSpotter profits by collecting information on loud sounds and selling it to police departments. (But isn’t it cheaper when people in the community simply phone police to report suspected gunfire?)

Flock Safety markets automatic license plate readers (“ALPRs”) to police departments and homeowners’ associations. While there is little evidence to support the notion that this “always-on surveillance” helps solve crime, Flock Safety reports that more than 400,000 vehicles were identified by their cameras in just the first 30 days of 2023. Of those, 4,490 (about 1%) “lit up the hot list of numbers to watch.” But it’s unknown why particular plates are added to this “hot list” because police are not forthcoming with the information.

Flock Safety has a privately owned database of millions of drivers’ locations that is sold to police without demonstrating the information solves crime. Apparently, there are few, if any, safeguards to prevent abuses such as a jealous deputy using ALPRs to track his ex’s new love interest or an entire agency staking out who visits Planned
Parenthood and when.

And Fog Data Science purchases cell phone location data, repackages it, and sells it to police and homeland security agencies. The data can be searched, allowing law enforcement to track the location of specific phones backward and forward in time. The company claims it has billions of data points from over 250 million devices dating back to 2017. Again, the potential for abuse is staggering. And even if the judiciary requires warrants based on probable cause, it is widely known that rules prohibiting abuse do not prevent abuse.

Taxpayers foot the bill for these technologies to be used in their communities and thereby pay for the privilege of having their privacy invaded by these same technologies and their rights potentially violated. These companies, like parasites, feed off their host. It’s time for some buyer’s remorse.




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