Erick Huerta was just trying to get some b-roll for his film. Outside a Los Angeles US Citizenship and Immigration Services office, Huerta was narrating his experiences growing up as an undocumented immigrant to a camcorder he was holding. Skateboarders were tricking around him, but it was the police car lingering across the street that really caught his eye—he packed up his things and started biking away.
The car followed and stopped him after a block. Officers interrogated him about his camera and demanded he identify himself. “That’s when I could see they weren’t taking down notes or a memo but filling out a sheet, with ‘Suspicious Activity Report’ on the top,” Huerta recalls. “I was never notified that I was in a database or anything. They just took it. It just goes away to a data center never to be heard of again.”
The experience rattled him. He’d been working with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, an organization opposing state spying and intelligence gathering, and so he knew a bit about the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (SAR), a national domestic-security program. SAR reports, defined opaquely as “official documentation of observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity,” are typically filed by police, but untrained civilians are also deputized to monitor suspicious activity through the “see something, say something” initiative. People have been reported for everything from taking photographs of dams to just being unfriendly. Once collected, the data is shared to all levels of law enforcement; those reported, like Huerta, have no clue where their information goes, who sees it, or how it will be used. Unlike being charged with a crime, there’s no way to clear your name once you’ve had a SAR report filed against you.
“There’s no transparency about the fact that you’re in this database,” Huerta says, who was worried about the influence it might have on traveling—or worse, his DACA application. “How can you access it? How can it impact you? Will it impact you? Will it be something that can be gone from my record, or will it be something that’s a little asterisk that’s always following me?”
But SAR is just one element of the mass surveillance that Americans across the country are increasingly subject to. To Hamid Khan, campaign coordinator of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, incidents like Huerta’s are a demonstration that, for all the sensationalist coverage of Russian hacking and social-media monitoring, surveillance is often happening intrusively in person, closer to home. “The impact of all of these programs starts on an individual and on a community,” Khan told me. Oakland Privacy’s Brian Hofer agreed, “The local is exactly where they’re collecting the most data.”
Over the past decade, local law enforcement, often in tandem with national-security agencies, have rolled out surveillance apparatuses unparalleled in their reach and scope. The evolution of procedures, intelligence-sharing, and technology have enabled dubious policing tactics to be carried out on an unprecedented scale, allowing for a greater breadth and depth of personal information to be surreptitiously harvested and circulated. Most of this takes place at the local level, at the hands of police departments, and as laws are outpaced and legislators strain to even grasp the basic mechanisms of the Internet, it has fallen to grassroots movements to lead the charge against the surveillance state.
The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and Oakland Privacy in California, and Privacy Watch STL, based in St. Louis, Missouri, are part of a growing constellation of organizations seeking to scale back the largely unchecked surveillance powers of local police. Distinct in their specific battles and occasionally oppositional in their methodologies, community-based anti-surveillance groups have been organizing for years, though Donald Trump’s threats to build religion-based registries and ramp up deportations have amplified concerns of how the state is watching citizens. Coupled with sharpened media coverage, the constituencies for these issues have soared: Oakland Privacy estimates a 40 percent increase in involvement, and hundreds more have connected to the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition.
This is not to say that mass surveillance is new. If anything, SAR and predictive policing carry on a shameless American tradition tracing back at least to New York’s 18th-century lantern laws mandating unaccompanied slaves to always carry lanterns at night. More recently, the FBI’s COINTELPRO projects spied on Martin Luther King Jr. and stalked, harassed, and assassinated members of groups like the Black Panthers.
What makes this era of surveillance distinctive, however, is the newly developed arsenal of militarized technologies available to your district policeman: automated license-plate readers and facial recognition that can track of individuals without their knowledge or consent; unmanned drones capable of thermal vision and high-resolution image capture; Stingray catchers that simulate cell-phone towers, sucking in nearby devices in order to strip data. More people are being watched than ever, most with no probable cause to suspect them of committing a crime. And at the center of all these information flows are fusion centers, the connective hubs conglomerating data from an array of sources and sharing it horizontally and vertically, with local, regional, federal, and international entities.
Woven together, these technologies and relationships create an invisible dragnet of almost fantastical proportions. And perhaps the most perverse accomplishment of the public-safety narrative is in convincing civilians that mass surveillance, unchecked and conducted in secret, has been for their own benefit.
On a Sunday night in late July, Nia Wilson was at an Oakland BART station with her sisters waiting to change trains when John Cowell rushed up to them and stabbed her in the neck. Her killing was the third homicide on the BART in a week. Widespread protests and public backlash followed. Within days, BART proposed a $28 million safety plan which centered on upgrading the physical security infrastructure of the transportation network so that thousands of video cameras could be coordinated in real time, overlaid with an analytics system that could map behavioral patterns of passengers.
All of this sounded eerily familiar to Hofer, chairman of Oakland Privacy, a privacy-rights coalition. In early 2014, after Occupy Oakland and labor strikes had been surveilled, Hofer rallied his organization against the city’s construction of a Domain Awareness Center (DAC). One of the DAC’s functions would be to “track political protesters and monitor large demonstrations,” and an exposé by the East Bay Express showed that the multimillion-dollar DAC would create a citywide surveillance system, capable of analyzing pedestrian- and vehicle-movement patterns, merging gunshot detectors and facial-recognition software with hundreds of live camera feeds sourced from schools, transit agencies, businesses, and public housing.
The DAC was an overreach. A broad coalition of protesters, including black and Muslim groups, rallied against the plan and succeeded in gutting the scope of the project, limiting it to the airport and the port and breaking information-sharing plans. But BART’s recent proposal is “basically a Domain Awareness Centre,” Hofer says, suggesting that the city is riding public fears to try to infringe on civil liberties once again. Could facial recognition really have done anything to stop Cowell? “There’s this big knee-jerk reaction to say we need things like this software. But it won’t stop the crime.”
Community-oversight laws have now become the tactic of choice for many local privacy groups. Often franchising the ACLU’s Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) template, community-oversight laws can “ensure residents, through local city councils, are empowered to decide if and how surveillance technologies are used.” By mandating annual impact reports, CCOPS-based legislation puts a check on law enforcement’s use and procurement of equipment, while giving the public an opportunity to weigh in on efficacy and usage. While pushing for state laws has been a sluggish process, often taking multiple electoral cycles to generate momentum, pursuing local changes through city councils has made a more immediate impact. Oakland’s iteration, passed unanimously this May, offers tighter reporting requirements and an explicit prohibition on any non-disclosure agreements related to the ordinance.
“People sometimes misunderstand us, thinking that we want to tie the hands of the police and then we’re all going to die of murder,” Hofer says. “But what we’re selling is essentially good government. It’s hard to make an argument against that. Once people look at our policies it does make sense. We can get buy-in from local law enforcement who understand what we’re doing.”
Across the country, the community-oversight model has been catching on: Santa Clara County, California, passed the first of these ordinances in June 2016, and in the two years since, similar legislation has been secured in Washington, Massachusetts, and a slew of cities in California. Now these efforts are rippling inland, with pending proposals in Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi.
“The law has not really caught up with the technologies,” agrees John Chasnoff, a member of Privacy Watch STL in St. Louis. The group formed after police signaled an interest in using drones, and it’s fought the city’s Real-Time Intelligence Center, a DAC-like hub. The St. Louis metropolitan area bears the fractious legacy of Ferguson, nation-high violent-crime rates, a coordinated network of 600 cameras, and aldermen allegedly using the surveillance apparatus for political purposes. In response, Privacy Watch STL has been pushing Board Bill 66, described by the EFF’s Grassroots Advocacy Director Shahid Buttar as one of the most ambitiously expansive in the country.
“The solutions need to be locally specific,” Chasnoff observes. “It’s been very useful for us to look at other cities and see what they’ve done with their bills, but it does come down to what can be relevant to St. Louis. Every city has different ways of striking that balance between civil liberties and issues around crime.”
For some in the movement against state surveillance, however, legislative reform does not go nearly far enough. Stop LAPD Spying Coalition’s Khan is skeptical of community-oversight bills that may essentially legitimize surveillance, while offering the window dressing of due process. Groups like Stop LAPD Spying Coalition hold that crime-data collection has always been driven by fear first and foremost, and has therefore been overwhelmingly used against communities of color. A 2015 audit of LAPD’s SAR reports revealed that 79 percent of people reported were nonwhite, who, like Huerta, were suspected of “pre-operational planning” for behaviors as innocuous as photography; the intelligence-sharing network had already been blasted by a congressional investigations committee as virtually useless and mostly unrelated to terrorism. “These systems are intentionally flawed by design, with the intent to cause harm on certain communities,” Khan points out. “Looking at the whole trajectory of how criminality has been assigned, how people have been traced and tracked and monitored, it’s predominantly been poor, black, and brown bodies that have been targeted as the threat.” In a memo opposing SB1186, the California statewide community-oversight bill backed by Oakland Privacy , the EFF, and the ACLU that stalled after passing the State Senate, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition argued that “Poison, even diluted, remains poison.”
“Do we want kinder, gentler racism?” Khan asks. “There is no kinder or gentler surveillance either.” Part of the current fear around surveillance is that anyone, anywhere, could be caught in the dragnet, but it’s important to note that it is specifically vulnerable demographics who are targeted on a day-to-day basis. He contends that the discussion needs to go deeper than the notion of individual privacy. “Surveillance is very much about race, about class, about poverty, about containing, controlling, and criminalizing certain people,” Khan says.
Working outside the legislative process means a different type of activism: “If Oakland demonstrates the apex of grassroots activism through legislation, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition demonstrates the apex of activism through effectively intimidation,” says Buttar, who organizes the EFF’s alliance of grassroots groups. “City officials are intimidated politically by the breadth and energy of the coalition.” Through awareness-raising and old-school door-knocking, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition managed to ground LAPD’s drone program for three years––the Draganflyer X6s the department had purchased eventually became obsolete and were destroyed. Even when a vastly reduced drone pilot program was finally approved this year, it was in the face of mass dissent from a well-informed public; a call for community feedback received 6 percent support from 1,675 e-mails, in addition to 5,000 petition signatures and 600 postcards in opposition.
Though a big-tent anti-surveillance platform remains elusive, groups at opposite ends of the movement are open to partnerships: In 2014, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition joined Oakland Privacy and other community groups across America for a day of action to shut down fusion centers across the nation. As the ongoing drive to militarize all levels of law enforcement surfaces the extent of the state spying apparatus, anti-surveillance groups have become natural allies for national political movements around police brutality and immigration policy, forming activist coalitions with Deport ICE, Black Lives Matter, and Stop Urban Shield.
Triumphs like these show the force that the local can harness, and in recent months, these ground-up gains have kept building: BART slowing down its surveillance plans, the LA police commission holding its first public hearing on data-driven policing, cities breaking contracts with ICE data brokers. Battles like these are a sharp reminder that the vast apparatus of state surveillance begins curbside, and ends in town halls, city councils, and in the streets.
“No one in history has ever said, “Oh wow! This mass surveillance system is really nice. This is a really great, well-designed system,’” Oakland Privacy’s Hofer says. “Right now, we’re in this indiscriminate, frankly ridiculous trend towards mass surveillance, and we need to work hard before it’s too late, before we can’t oppose it at all.”