Life as we used to know it has been upended. But before anyone else declares that “nothing will ever be the same” let us not forget that Big Brother never sleeps. From California to Maine, the mass surveillance of lawful Americans and attacks on whistle-blowers who shine a light on abuse continues even during a national pandemic.
Campus police at the University of California at Santa Clara teamed up with local and federal law enforcement, a fusion center and the California National Guard to spy on graduate students protesting for a living wage, according to documents uncovered by Vice. The documents reveal that law enforcement used military-grade surveillance technology and monitored student social media accounts to produce “intelligence” on peaceful protesters supporting the teaching students’ four-month old wildcat strike. One of the documents, which alleges without evidence the students planned to “escalate” their activity, is dated a day before police arrested 17 people at a campus protest. A student activist says an officer attempted to intimidate him at a different event by approaching him and indicating he knew the activists’ full name, birth date and hometown.
For the next six months Baltimore police will fly aerial surveillance planes to record the movements and activities of its residents. Similar to a previous program that was not made public until after it was operating, the Aerial Investigation Research (AIR) Pilot Program uses planes equipped with high-tech cameras that can track the locations of people and vehicles in a 32-square-mile area. The footage is supposed to be used to assist police with criminal investigations, but without proper safeguards and transparency, the program is ripe for abuse.
There is no indication that the costly aerial surveillance reduces crime and residents are already questioning the disparity of where the planes are being deployed and who will have access to their location and activity data captured by the planes.
The Phoenix Police Department used a specialty surveillance camera to monitor peaceful protesters at the Arizona Capitol in April. The camera, known as Strongwatch, is typically mounted on the bed of a pick-up truck and can rotate 360 degrees and stretch up to 30 feet into the air to provide on ground or aerial surveillance. It allows law enforcement to view people up to five miles away and comes with night vision capabilities and thermal imaging. Just as with other surveillance tech like Stingrays, police departments are signing non-disclosure agreements with the camera’s manufacturer to prevent the public from learning where and how it’s used to surveil residents.
A former Maine police officer who said that the state’s fusion center is illegally gathering and sharing information about protesters, would-be gun buyers and other residents, has sued the center after being demoted for reporting the violations to his superiors. The Maine Intelligence Analysis Center routinely collects and stores information about residents, including vehicle data of cars making trips from Portland to New York City captured by license-plate readers, according to George Loder, a former Maine State Police officer since 1994. “The information is mined from the license plate data of the other agencies by computer without any pre-existing suspicion of criminal activity,” part of his complaint said.
The state legislature is holding an inquiry to investigate the allegations of illegal surveillance.