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Electronic Freedom Foundation’s Atlas of Surveillance Helps You Watch Those Who Watch Us

by Michael Dean Thompson

The Electronic Freedom Foundation (“EFF”), working with journalism students at the University of Nevada, Reno (“UNR”), created the Atlas of Surveillance as a pilot from counties along the U.S. border with Mexico in 2019. Its task was to track how the police use technology for surveillance. The monitored programs included systems such as body cameras, drones, license plate readers, and facial recognition. With just 250 data points in 2019, it grew to 5,000 in 2020 when it went national and has now reached over 10,000 instances of tracked technological surveillance programs, comprised of over 5,500 police forces across the U.S. and its territories.

The rapid expansion of the Atlas of Surveillance reflects the ever-increasing use of technology by cops to gather and share data on American citizens. For example, Amazon’s Ring Neighborhood app has partnered with more than 2,000 police forces around the country with the potential to watch people and listen to conversations through some 10 million video cameras attached to homes across America. At the same time, police built up to 100 technology hubs stuffed with screens monitoring surveillance datasets – dubbed “real-time crime centers.”

The EFF began the project with the goals of increasing transparency along with the number of people actively engaged in monitoring the surveillants. The Atlas is the culmination of a significant amount of work that functions as a resource for reporters, activists, and policy makers who would like to get a handle on the technologies being used by the police and how those technologies affect their constituencies, interests, or readers.

But the dataset is ever evolving and requires more participation from the communities involved. To that end, the EFF worked with the Reynolds School of Journalism at UNR to teach students how to research through search engine queries, data scraping, and Freedom of Information Act requests. They have since begun working with more universities such as Arizona State University, Harvard College, and the University of Washington. The data available in the Atlas have assisted in the creation of a variety of news articles and scholarly research, including a University of California, Berkeley project on how police are using big data and its effect on racial inequality.

The Atlas of Surveillance allows users to search for specific hometowns so that anyone interested can learn more about how police might be surveilling them. As the Atlas of Surveillance grows, new features will be added to assist communities in understanding what is being done around them and what they can do. 


Source: Mass, D., EFF’s Atlas of Surveillance Database Now Documents 10,000+ Police Tech Programs,

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