CIR takes a deep dive into the surveillance of ordinary Americans

There’s a great term for the way the government and other big organizations work.

It’s “creeping incrementalism.”

Surveillance of ordinary Americans is happening right now across the country. Local governments and law enforcement agencies are slowly and steadily adopting some astonishing technologies to monitor the day-to-day activities of private citizens in the name of fighting crime.

It’s a steady drip. A pilot program to install facial recognition software. A federal anti-terrorism grant for a big port that turns into a citywide monitoring system. A test run of a “wide-area surveillance” camera over the city of Compton, Calif.

This year, The Center for Investigative Reporting is focused on pulling together the pieces of this remarkable transformation of policing and local government. Law enforcement agencies are embracing surveillance technologies like never before. We’ve already written a lot about this, and we’re going to do more of it.

This week, CIR and KQED have teamed up to take an inside look at emerging technologies that could revolutionize policing. “State of Surveillance” – a 30-minute television special that airs 7:30 p.m. Friday on KQED 9 – examines crime-fighting technologies that also raise concerns about privacy and the presumption of innocence. Radio reports also will air Friday morning on KQED 88.5 FM.

Attention has been rightly directed at the NSA and the leaks by Edward Snowden. No local government or police agency in the U.S. comes close to the incredible breadth and reach of the NSA’s spying program.

But given the speed that technology advances, turning attention to local law enforcement and government surveillance activities is critical. We could wake up one day in a completely different world, where law enforcement has access to nearly every waking moment of a person’s life.

We think that deserves a public debate.

Today, CIR is creating a forum on Reddit.com for people to participate in our coverage and drive conversation on this important subject. This subreddit will allow CIR to gather a community of folks interested in the topic of local surveillance. By that we mean: What’s happening in your own backyard?

CIR has done Reddit chats in the past with our reporters, but making this topic-specific subreddit would open up the dialogue. We’re asking ask the public to share opinions, experiences and story tips that we could use to inform our reporting.

Along the way, we’ll pose key questions about these emerging technologies and practices. For example:

    Why should we worry about this? Who cares if police read your Twitter account and take your picture walking around the mall or driving across a bridge?

    For one, we know that private attorneys love surveillance technologies; they can access much of what’s produced with a simple subpoena. That has a lot of people worried.

    There’s another interesting term that applies here as well. It’s “confirmation bias.” Here’s the problem with collecting everything and anything on people, as described in an Al Jazeera America piece about Brandon Mayfield, who was falsely accused in the 2004 Madrid commuter train bombing.

    Information overload “... can imply guilt where there is none. When investigators have mountains of data on a particular target, it’s easy to see only the data points that confirm their theories – especially in counterterrorism investigations when the stakes are so high – while ignoring or downplaying the rest. There doesn’t have to be any particular malice on the part of investigators or analysts, although prejudice no doubt comes into play, just circumstantial evidence and the dangerous belief in their intuition.”

    After the Madrid bombing, the FBI determined that fingerprints found at the scene were possible matches to 20 people, including Mayfield. Mayfield’s house was broken into by the FBI. The FBI bugged his house and tapped his phone. He was followed and then arrested and detained for two week without charges. Finally, Spanish authorities said the fingerprint actually belong to an Algerian national, and Mayfield was released.

    With that in mind, feel free to connect with us on Reddit and Twitter at @cironline and @chenkx. You can also email kchen@cironline.org.

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