AI Surveillance, The Next Step In Excessive Policing?


It’s no secret that in 2024 the American police state already acts with wanton disregard for most civil liberties. From the county level all the way up to the federal, one of the most discounted constitutional rights of the American citizen is that of privacy.

To put it frankly, we are being spied on all the time. And it is happening with ever increasing frequency. We all know this. The existence of illegal mass surveillance programs hasn’t been a secret for over a decade, since government contractor Edward Snowden came forward as a whistleblower to reveal the NSA’s PRISM program in which millions of innocent Americans had their private data illegally swept up in an intelligence dragnet. And yet it is still one of the most blatant violations of basic rights that is widely known and simultaneously brushed aside by the citizenry.

Case and point is the fact that just days ago the president signed into law new extensions to warrantless mass surveillance, exponentially expanding the unconstitutional spying capabilities of the federal government to unprecedented levels and hardly anyone even batted an eye. But the fact remains that this kind of illegal surveillance of Americans is nothing new, exemplified by the reporting of award-winning journalist Meyer Berger in his 1938 exposé for The New Yorker, police have been wiretapping American citizens to illegally spy on them since at least 1895. 

Fast forward to the present day and police have all sorts of new toys to help them snoop on citizens. From pervasive Stingray technology to Fog Reveal “mass surveillance on a budget” and beyond, the tools being utilized to violate constitutionally protected privacy rights in the name of the “greater good” are becoming evermore sophisticated.

This has become particularly true in recent years with the rise of artificial intelligence, and it’s growing integration into law enforcement. One area in which AI has already seen some pushback from civil liberty advocates is it’s use in facial recognition technology wherein critics highlight several issues with the technology ranging from overall privacy concerns to faults in the technology leading to misidentifications and false arrests.

The premise of expanding AI surveillance into everyday law enforcement is quickly becoming more than just a concept. In a September interview with Police Chief Magazine, Exploring AI For Law Enforcement, AI expert Frank Chen discusses in an interview with San Mateo County undersheriff Chris Hsiung the potential general applications of integrating artificial intelligence with policing. In the conversation one line stands out (emphasis ours);

“Technology can help officers get to the scene of a crime with more awareness by tapping into cameras installed in fixed locations or even community members’ smartphones. Once there, officers can use technology to gather and analyze all kinds of data: eyewitness accounts, video surveillance, DNA, fingerprints, and other forensic data.”

While on the surface that may sound like a positive thing, helping cops more effectively do their jobs. When considering the fact that police don’t solve the vast majority of major crimes and the copiously documented history of abuse throughout the institution of law enforcement across the country, it may be wise to think twice about expanding the mass surveillance capabilities of the enforcers of the state.

In some capacities mass surveillance of this nature has already been underway. 

A November 2023 report detailed the ways in which police were circumventing warrant requirements by purchasing personal data from private vendors as a means of collecting information on American citizens.

Additionally, a report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation documents how Google’s Sensorvault shares GPS and other location data with law enforcement in order to trace and track individuals locations via geo-fencing.

As EFF notes, because Google stores this data indefinitely, Sensorvault “includes detailed location records involving at least hundreds of millions of devices worldwide and dating back nearly a decade.

The data Google is turning over to law enforcement is so precise that one deputy police chief said it “shows the whole pattern of life.” It’s collected even when people aren’t making calls or using apps, which means it can be even more detailed than data generated by cell towers.”

One glaring real time example of how this kind of technology was used against American citizens occurred during the 2020 police accountability protests following the murder of George Floyd. Despite the warnings of civil liberties advocates early in the pandemic that contact tracing technology would be abused for surveillance purposes, these concerns were considered little more than conspiracy theories. Until the protests following the murder of Floyd erupted across the country.

Shortly thereafter, an investigation by digital privacy advocates revealed that indeed contact tracing technology was used by police departments to track the activity of activists and protesters in what amounts to blatant violations of both 1st and 4th Amendment rights. 

These are just some of the ways in which law enforcement collect mass troves of data of American citizens, and as artificial intelligence technology continues to evolve and become further integrated into these systems the likelihood is that the nature of such surveillance will only become more prevalent.

While the integration of AI into police departments is still somewhat of a nuanced topic, as some reports indicate that it can be useful in aiding efforts of police accountability and reducing instances of police brutality if utilized appropriately — 

As a society it would be wise to be wary about the unchecked integration of such technology into an institution so fraught with corruption and abuse, one that is already showing increasing interest in using AI algorithms for “precrime analysis”, otherwise known as predictive policing, to profile individuals in an attempt to stop crimes before they happen. Such an effort without strenuous ethical oversight could very easily lead us into a world not unlike that of Minority Report.