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The District of Colombia: Inside the Most Expansive Surveillance Network in America

by Casey J. Bastian

Washington D.C. is not simply home to our nation’s capital or the seat of some of its most powerful institutions. What many people don’t realize is that the metropolitan area contains more officers from local, regional, and federal agencies per capita than any other city in America. These agencies aren’t just legion. They are highly coordinated, intent on building “a complex network of partnerships, initiatives, and technology to surveil the district.” This “sprawling web of surveillance” has been under construction for over two decades, all the while shrouded in secrecy.

The scope of this police-state surveillance network, wielded primarily against innocent citizens of the city, has recently been exposed. Documents obtained through public records requests and ransomware hacks reveal that the Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) has a practice of networking with joint agencies to track citizens through social media or while demonstrating at peaceful protests.

In 2021, Distributed Denial of Secrets (“DDS”) published 250 gigabytes of MPD emails and attachments. DDS is a “transparency collective” with a mission to distribute such documents online. These MPD documents were stolen by the ransomware group Babuk as part of a hack, and Lucy Parsons Labs of Chicago made the trove searchable. Once published by DDS, reporters and journalist organizations found that the MPD had compiled a database of “supposed gang members.” Not only is this database riddled with misinformation, it is used by the MPD to excuse “aggressive policing of Black communities.”

There are several other troubling revelations concerning MPD activities in these documents as well. An MPD robbery unit regularly targets schools and youths with “jumpout intimidation tactics.” Those moving to have bad cops fired from the MPD are undermined by a “powerful MPD tribunal” that protects officers. These previously undisclosed emails also exposed elaborate surveillance systems operated by D.C.-area law enforcement agencies.

In 2022, ICE Out of DC Coalition, a band of civil rights organizations, reported on documents obtained through public sources and records requests. Those documents provided a more detailed survey of the “capital region’s law enforcement surveillance agencies and technologies.” Together, these 250 gigabytes of documents and the 2022 report materials provide the first real in-depth exposure of the invasive, broad surveillance systems deployed against D.C.-area residents. “Many of these systems are constantly collecting information about D.C. residents and can provide precise details on their daily lives in real time,” said Dinesh McCoy, a co-writer of the ICE Out of DC report and a staff attorney at Just Futures Law.

One such system is the MPD’s Joint Operations Command Center (“JOCC”). The JOCC is a secure surveillance control center which was quickly launched into operation after 9/11. This was the MPD’s first infrastructure upgrade of the “war on terror”-era. The JOCC is accessible to the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and regional police intelligence hubs. McCoy says, “There’s a real potential for this kind of surveillance to cause a chilling effect and a climate of fear around the right to protest in the city, especially for Black and brown people that are targeted most often by police.” McCoy isn’t being hyperbolic – that’s exactly what the MPD has been doing.

In the JOCC, MPD officers and analysts watch more than 20 display monitors that are linked to approximately 50 computer stations. These stations are “all connected to the MPD’s broad arsenal of intelligence data programs and surveillance sources.” In the fall of 2014, Black Lives Matter protestors in D.C. were waiting to learn whether Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson would be indicted by the grand jury for the shooting death of Michael Brown. What the protestors didn’t know was that the JOCC was waiting and watching, too. MPD emails reveal that law enforcement was tracking activists’ social media accounts, closed-circuit television feeds, and news reports. Police claim they were expecting trouble and using surveillance to get in front of it. JOCC analysts were hoping to funnel intelligence to officers on the ground, and in turn, these officers could provide updates on protestor activities every half-hour. McCoy calls this practice “troubling,” particularly when it targets activities protected by the First Amendment.

In early 2015, the JOCC went operational again after the killing of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police. Prior to protests beginning, JOCC analysts were searching social media sites for “demonstration times and locations” and “indications of violence or civil disobedience.” Photographs of protestors were sent back to the JOCC by officers on site. As protest marches began, plainclothes officers provided the JOCC with constant updates in an effort to gather intelligence. The JOCC was also aware that protestors were monitoring the police presence. An effort was made to understand how protestors were doing this monitoring, or whether protestors knew plainclothes officers were amongst them.

This conduct begs the question: Are officers providing public safety as they claim or simply compiling databases of citizens viewed as hostile towards the modern, abusive police-state?

MPD personnel have an additional tool in the JOCC. It is powerful software known as “Aware.” Developed by Microsoft and previously provided to the New York Police Department as the “Domain Awareness System.” This program “instantaneously mines data from the NYPD’s vast trove of records and raw intelligence materials and aggregates it into a user-friendly, readable form.” An MPD analyst called the NYPD’s system “fantastic” and “incredibly interesting.” Shortly thereafter, the MPD’s Aware system was activated, and by late 2015, command staff, intelligence analysts, and patrol officers were accessing its data.

Aware uses artificial intelligence compiled from 911 call records, offense reports, gunshot detector alerts, and license plate reader data. Aware also accumulates data from social media feeds and live video from closed-circuit cameras in the Washington area. The Aware system is not just available to the JOCC, it is connected to databases run by the Washington Area Law Enforcement System and the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.

Microsoft representatives hail this broad surveillance power: “When you deal with your jurisdiction and today’s global threat, we have to look a little bit deeper,” said one representative. This is quite concerning to civil liberties advocates. “They’re making tremendous leaps in order to justify the surveillance of Black and brown residents,” said Carlos Andino, a fellow at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

In the D.C. metropolitan area, there is also the nonprofit association of local and regional government leaders, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (“MWCG”). The MWCG operates its own set of mass surveillance systems, including “50 fixed and mobile automatic license plate readers and a fingerprint identification system.” This system scans over “500,000 plates each day in D.C. alone.” This is then shared with “24 federal, state, regional, and local law enforcement agencies.” The MWCG operated a secret facial recognition system until 2021, when the project was shut down. Reports indicate that the system, which contained “a database of 1.4 million people, was used more than 12,000 times in 2019 and 2020.”

The MWCG is not an official government organization, but it does receive millions of dollars in federal funding. In 2020, the MWCG received nearly 10 million dollars from federal agencies, including D.C.’s Homeland Security Emergency Management Agency (“HSEMA”). HSEMA operates nearly 5,600 closed-circuit cameras in D.C. and has access to the 150 traffic feeds operated by the D.C. Department of Transportation.

HSEMA also operates the area’s main fusion center. The D.C. fusion center operates in secret, so the extent of its activity is unknown. It is believed that the fusion center “liaises with no fewer than 25 local, regional, and federal agencies.” The center was formerly known as the Washington Regional Threat Assessment Center but is now called the National Capital Region Threat Intelligence Consortium. McCoy observed, “D.C. has so many overlapping local and federal law enforcement entities and surveillance systems.” The extent of the surveillance network in our capital is astounding – it is truly the home of Big Brother. 

Source: The Intercept

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