A New Map Shows the Inescapable Creep of Surveillance

 wired.com  07/15/2020 11:00:00   Brian Barrett

Over 1,300 partnerships with Ring. Hundreds of facial recognition systems. Dozens of cell-site simulator devices. The surveillance apparatus in the United States takes all kinds of forms in all kinds of placesa huge number of which populate a new map called the Atlas of Surveillance.

A collaboration between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the University of Nevada, Reno Reynolds School of Journalism, the Atlas of Surveillance offers an omnibus look not only at what technologies law enforcement agencies deploy, but where they do it. From automated license plate readers to body cameras to the so-called fusion centers that centrally process scores of surveillance data, the project drives home just how common these sophisticated tools have become. In fact, despite offering 5,300 data points from 3,000 police departments, its still only a sample of surveillances true sweep.

Were never going to be comprehensive, says Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at EFF who helped lead the project as a visiting professor at the Reynolds School. If our goal is to keep neck and neck with the growth of the surveillance state, wed lose.

Which reinforces the point. The map is unsettling enough in its current configuration. Its almost impossible to imagine how crowded it would be if it included all of the 18,000 federal, state, county, and local agencies that comprise US law enforcement, by the Bureau of Justice Statistics' count.

Screenshot: WIRED Staff via Atlas of Surveillance

Getting the map even this far has been a Herculean task, one that began around 18 months ago. Some of the most common questions the EFF gets from media, Maass says, relate to the distribution of surveillance technology in the US. The EFF had previously done investigatory work around automated license plate readers, and other organizations like Bard Colleges Center for the Study of the Drone maintain their own specific databases. But what about a central repository? One that could answer many of those questions with a click or two? For that, you would need a small army of researchersor a few hundred journalism students. Enter the Reynolds School.

Maass and the Gi Yun, the Director of the Reynolds Schools Center for Advanced Media Studies, first meted out data-gathering assignments using Google Drive and Google Survey before migrating to the EFFs Report Back tool, an online portal that automatically parcels out small tasks to volunteers. To prove out the concept, they focused first on the 23 counties across the US-Mexico border, assigning a city or county to a team of students and tasking them with finding out what surveillance tools were in use there. The EFF published the results last September. That ended up being really frustrating for the students, because theyre looking in small-town Texas for cell-site simulators, which theyre just never going to find, says Maass.

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