Firms that profit from surveillance technology now oppose it : The Indicator from Planet Money The companies that lead the field in surveillance technology are turning against it.
NPR logo

The Business Of Police Surveillance

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/876389237/876404338" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Business Of Police Surveillance

The Business Of Police Surveillance

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/876389237/876404338" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Tawana Petty can remember exactly how the green light project started in Detroit.

TAWANA PETTY: It started with about eight or nine flashing green light cameras. They were at gas stations, you know, that were staying open late in order to deter crime.

VANEK SMITH: The idea was to put these cameras in place in high-crime or risky areas.

PETTY: Well, in the course of three years, we now have over 700. And they are now in, you know, places like medical centers, grocery stores, community centers, low-income housing, some religious institutions.

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Tawana is with the Detroit Community Technology Project. And she says that a lot of locals really liked the cameras. The cameras made them feel safer, but Tawana was worried about how the cameras were being used. In the last few months, some of her fears were realized.

PETTY: Well, since COVID-19, thousands of tickets have been issued to residents using Project Green Light surveillance to target for not social distancing.

VANEK SMITH: The citations given out for not social distancing came with a fine of $1,000. And Tawana points out that the median income in Detroit is about $29,000, and not social distancing isn't actually a crime. And Tawana is worried that this kind of thing - it's just the beginning.

GARCIA: Companies and police departments have been partnering up to create surveillance systems all over the U.S. Microsoft and Amazon - they've been giants in the field, along with dozens of smaller companies.

VANEK SMITH: Studies show that surveillance cameras can be really effective at reducing crime. A study from the Urban Institute found that in Baltimore, crime dropped significantly and stayed down after the city invested in hundreds of cameras.

GARCIA: But privacy advocates are worried about how the technology is being used. A lot of police departments are using the cameras in conjunction with facial recognition technology and using that to monitor people who participate in protests or who don't social distance and track them around the city.

VANEK SMITH: This week, calls for reform have been coming fast and furious. And actually, they've been coming from the companies that developed a lot of this technology. IBM publicly announced this week that it is getting out of the facial recognition business. The company's CEO expressed worries about how the technology was being used for, quote, "mass surveillance, racial profiling and a violation of basic human rights and freedoms." Microsoft and Amazon followed suit, also announcing that they were not going to make their software available to police.

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on the show, police surveillance - police departments have been partnering with tech companies for years on surveillance and facial recognition technology. It's big business and very lucrative for the companies. But ironically enough, some of those very same companies are now the ones who are calling for reform and oversight.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: The surveillance partnership between tech companies and police departments goes back years. Here in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg worked with Microsoft to develop a network of cameras and license plate readers that could track people and cars all over the city. And they developed this pretty interesting business arrangement as well. Angel Diaz is a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice.

ANGEL DIAZ: And it was developed in partnership between the city of New York and Microsoft. And part of that agreement is that anytime that Microsoft sells that technology to another city, New York gets a cut of those profits.

GARCIA: Microsoft just announced that it will stop selling facial recognition software to police, and the company has been calling for federal regulation on the technology for years. But Angel says there are plenty of companies still in the business, and police departments are often in a budget crunch. And creating surveillance systems with big companies has proven to be a cost-effective way to reduce crime, locate abducted children and even crack down on human trafficking.

VANEK SMITH: But the tracking technology is being used for a lot of other things as well, and it is incredibly widespread. A report from Georgetown's law school a few years ago found that photos of half of U.S. adults were in a database that police could search using facial recognition.

GARCIA: Also, as part of these partnerships, police departments will sometimes hand over citizens' data to companies. That was the case with IBM. Now, IBM is now getting out of the business. But years ago, it got a bunch of free surveillance data from the NYPD.

DIAZ: The NYPD helped develop IBM's video analytics system by giving the company access to its surveillance footage. So if you are a New Yorker who rides the subway, footage of your ride may have been used to train IBM's video analytics service, which, until recently, had a feature that said it could identify people based on their skin tone or hair color.

VANEK SMITH: Angel says right now, we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic, national protests looting and shut-down cities, so police departments can make a strong case for extraordinary tracking measures; things like drones and infrared cameras. The problem is, says Angel, those tracking measures are not likely to go away when the extraordinary circumstances do.

DIAZ: So we know from, for example, the post-9/11 world that a lot of temporary measures that were set up to respond to the terrorist attacks resulted in technologies that lasted for much longer and that are still being used today.

GARCIA: Some cities have put bans in place on the use of facial recognition technology. These cities include Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco. Boston is considering a ban. But those are wealthy cities, and Angel worries that many low-income communities and many communities of color just won't put those initiatives in place. And so the people living in those cities will just have less privacy as a result. And they'll be more at risk of being tracked and maybe also of wrongful conviction.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, facial recognition technology itself is notoriously inaccurate, especially when it comes to identifying minorities. And that could lead to a lot of wrongful tracking and arrests, especially since the technology has gotten so widespread. Amazon, one of the giants in the space, reportedly recently made a pitch to ICE, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

GARCIA: Many big investors did try to pressure the company out of that business, but it didn't work. In fact, Amazon has said that it's not entirely sure how many police departments are even using it or were using it. Amazon just said that it is now banning police departments from using its facial recognition technology for a year.

VANEK SMITH: Back in Detroit, Tawana Petty says she is glad to see big companies backing away from this business. And she is hoping to shut off hundreds of cameras that have gone up in her city as part of Detroit's green light project. Tawana says people feeling like they're being watched and tracked - it's just bad for community.

PETTY: So I just think this is an awesome opportunity to revisit our priorities at city - our city government's priorities and pull back on this heavy-handed reactionary way of dealing with quality of life crimes and start to invest in the neighborhoods more; to look out for one another, to see each other, to not watch and track and report on each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: Tawana says the technology is expensive. Detroit has spent millions of dollars on these cameras. She's hoping this could all open up a dialogue about the cameras and about other ways that communities could spend that money so that the money would help deter crime and keep residents safe.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen, fact-checked by Britney Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.