Big Brother and Domestic Law Enforcement

Terrorists are not the only people being watched by government forces in the U.S. Increasingly, both local and federal police are using technologically advanced surveillance techniques in regular law enforcement. New reports show that the D.E.A. not only uses information gathered by the N.S.A.’s terrorism surveillance (among other sources) to bust normal drug criminals, they have been falsifying the origin of their investigations. This raises serious due process concerns if the prosecutor, let alone the defendant, doesn’t even know the truth about the evidence collected.

In addition to this, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that law enforcement can track a suspects every movement without a warrant, using cell phone location tracking. This opens the door to police tracking individuals purely at their own discretion, without even needing the person to be suspected of a crime. It also opens the door to storing heat maps of an individual’s movements, analyzing behavior, and predicting it. The potential for this to be used to target political activists, journalists, and other law abiding citizens is very real.

This trend of location tracking can also be seen in the increased use of license plate readers. Over the past five years, the D.H.S. has provided over $50 million in grants to fund the acquisition of these. License plates readers are generally used to capture all license plates traveling past one of the cameras. They search a database to see if the license plate matches up with a person of interest, such as a convicted sex offender, suspected child abductor, or a person with an outstanding warrant for arrest. If the plate registers a hit, then police are notified. This has proved a valuable tool for detecting criminals in real time.

Only, the millions of innocent license plates that are collected in the search for one hit are not deleted. In many cases they are stored indefinitely, unless the police jurisdiction has laws or policies directed at how long to keep the information. This gives police the ability to profile the movements of a particular car, analyze behaviors, and opens the door for all kinds of abuse.

The cameras beginning to blanket city streets can be used for more than just identifying cars running red lights. The F.B.I. is developing a Next Generation Identification Program which will use 3-D facial recognition to identify individuals on the fly. The project is expected to be fully operational by 2014 and will be able to register identification in as little as 10 minutes, compared to the two hours of a traditional fingerprint scan. With publicly available photo databases such as Facebook and Google, this technology has been shown effective at identifying a person with merely a snapshot.

Eyes on the streets are working in tandem with the eyes in the sky: Drones. The D.E.A. and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives regularly use surveillance drones in their domestic police work. The F.B.I. recently admitted to using drones over U.S. soil in a “very, very minimal way…” Some of these drones are too small to be viewed with the naked eye and can observe many square miles of land in real time. Even local law enforcement is beginning to buy drones for their surveillance needs.

Local law enforcement is also becoming increasingly militarized, buying up military surplus equipment and increasing the use of S.W.A.T. teams. No knock raids are often used when a person is suspected of a drug crime, sometimes with tragic results. In one case in 2006, a narcotics team from the Atlanta Police department was investigating a supply of illegal drugs. A suspect under duress gave them the address of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. When law enforcement broke into her home, she met them with an old non-functioning revolver she used to frighten off intruders. Police opened fire and two officers were wounded from friendly fire. Johnston was handcuffed and left to bleed to death while one officer planted marijuana in the basement.

Additional Resources

Reuters, U.S. Directs Agents to Cover up Program Used to Investigate Americans:

Reuters, How D.E.A. Program Differs from Recent N.S.A. Revelations:

The Wall Street Journal, Rise of the Warrior Cop:

Examiner, F.B.I. Has New Crime-Fighting Tool: Facial Recognition Software:

The Guardian, F.B.I. Admits to Using Surveillance Drones over U.S. Soil:

The New York Times, Other Agencies Clamor for Data N.S.A. Compiles:

CNet, FBI Pressures Internet Providers to Install Surveillance Software:

The New York Times, Four Degrees of Separation:

The New York Times, Court Upholds Cellphone Tracking without a Warrant:

The Huffington Post, DEA Special Operations Division Covers up Surveillance Used to Investigate Americans:


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