Police departments and other government law enforcement agencies across the nation are deploying evermore sophisticated technologies to track the activities of the citizens they are charged with protecting. Some tools can capture information from your cellphone when you attend a rally or even in your home. Others can monitor your social media activity or record your license plate or film you walking down the street. And you probably won't know any of that is happening—or where the information is going.
This past Tuesday, the ACLU SoCal Pasadena/Foothills Chapter devoted its bimonthly public forum to examining some of the ways the government is gathering mountains of personal data about everyday citizens and what, if anything, any of us can do to protect ourselves from unwarranted intrusions on our privacy.
“Police surveillance—collecting and monitoring information about individuals by the government—has been with us a long time. Who can forget Cointelpro?” began panelist Mohammad Tajsar, an ACLU staff attorney who specializes in police practices. “But today's technology makes surveillance orders of magnitude more invasive, catching up many more people.”
Tajdar has been working closely with local Pasadena activists in CICOPP, the Coalition for Increased Civilian Oversight of Pasadena Police, and the ACLU of Southern California's Pasadena/Foothills Chapter, to uncover that city's webs of surveillance. Panel moderator and forum leader Kris Ockershauser is a long-term ACLU volunteer and cofounder of CICOPP.
“The amount of information is also orders of magnitude greater than anything that could be collected and managed before,” continued Tajsar. “In 1981, it cost $100,000 to store 1 Gbyte of data. Today that cost is three cents. And in 1985, the most powerful computer in the world—the Cray II—cost $32 million. Today, you've got the same computing power in your iPhone 4, which costs a good deal less.”
About 60 mostly Pasadena residents attended the forum held at the Friends Meeting House on East Orange Grove Boulevard. Many expressed deep reservations about what they saw as an avalanche of new surveillance technology poking into every aspect of their lives.
“With police surveillance, you're really talking about white supremacy,” said Ken Montenegro, a cofounder of the Coalition Against LAPD Spying, who joined Tajsar and Ockershauser on the panel. “Who are the canaries in the surveillance coal mine? Blacks, Latinos, poor people.”
“The stalker state uses surveillance technologies as a strategic way to snatch up immigrants as they're going about their daily lives,” said Montengro, who is also National Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild and a board member for Immigrant Defender Law Center and Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN).
The event was coproduced by LA Progressive and cosponsored by CICOPP, Justice Not Jails/Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and Pasadenans Organizing for Progress.
The panelists outlined a variety of current techniques that are being deployed: monitoring hash tags in social media as was done with the #BLM hash tag; Spokeo to gather personal information from Web pages; cell phone spiders that can gather phone numbers and personal information of people attending a rally; Vigilance Solutions to collect license plate data; the newer “Smart Cities” that are designed to benefit distribution of public services but also collect all kinds of information about people's daily habits; and fusion centers, or multiagency resources, used to amass information gathering by a variety of technologies.
But the worst threat may be the way law enforcement agencies can work with private corporations and their commercial databases. Think of all the information you've put online, in Facebook, Twitter, bank accounts, and email systems.
“One problem is how easy it is for government to surveil us,” said Tajsar. “Data acquisition services are in the business of collecting info about individuals and selling it to government agencies, who then don't have to get their hands dirty themselves."
The ACLU's “They Are Watching” website gives a wealth of information about technology intrusions and how people can protect themselves.
The panelists drew attention to what citizens can do about these intrusions into their personal space.“We've got to start thinking about these kind of things collectively,” said Montenegro.“Stop LAPD Spying is having trainings in March to show people how they can protect themselves.”
Montenegro's coalition fought to stop the Los Angeles Police Department from deploying more drones. “They had a bogus process to get public support, which they didn't get,” said Montenegro. “We showed that the LAPD is not really open to public input.”
Tajsar discussed the City of Alameda's recent move to reconsider its decision to increase reliance on expensive automatic license plate reader (ALRP) technology, thanks to efforts by local advocates.
But in both cases, the victories were temporary and may ultimately come to naught.
“People power is the only way we can fight back,” said Montenegro. “A variety of approaches is important, too, with groups like the ACLU and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition coming at these issues in their different ways.”
Several years ago, the ACLU SoCal published an guidebook for local activists concerned about surveillance in their communities: “Making Smart Decisions About Surveillance.”
Audience member and local activist attorney Dale Gronemeir said that the Pasadena Police Department is collecting a half million ALRP records a year, with very little transparency into what they're doing with all that information.
“We're trying to get people to request their personal ALRP records so we can find possible racial bias in the collection,” said Gronemeir, who fears the Pasadena Police will focus heavily on Pasadena's heavily black northwest neighborhood. He encouraged people to contact his law office for help in collecting that information: email@example.com • 323.254.6700.
Bonnie Blustein, another regular attendee at these ACLU forums, wondered about motives:“Maybe the government's idea isn't so much to collect data than to terrify us,” she observed. “Because the powerful are afraid of us, as they should be.”
Next up for the ACLU SoCal Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and its partners will be a forum on affordable housing, with a possible title of “Rent Control, Before We All Commute From Victorville,” planned for March 13th, 7 p.m. at the same Friends Meeting House, 520 E. Orange Grove Boulevard, in Pasadena.
Editor, LA Progressive