The militarized policing they don't want you to see

The militarized policing they don't want you to see
© Cooper Neill/Getty Images

We have all been shocked watching military equipment deployed against our fellow Americans in recent weeks. Flashbangs, tear gas, armored vehicles, and automatic weapons have all made an appearance in our own cities and hometowns. The most dangerous military tools, however, are the ones that, by design, you’ll never see. IMSI catchers (fake cell towers), mass GPS tracking, and persistent surveillance drones can record nearly every aspect of public dissent. This spying chills political expression and endangers the Constitution, but it also puts countless Americans of color at risk of wrongful arrest at a time when police encounters have never been more deadly.

In the wake of Ferguson’s expansive 2014 protests, President Barak Obama reflected that “militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like it's an occupying force.” Militarized policing shows those dissenting that they are no longer considered civilians; they are the enemy. Similarly, militarized surveillance signals to the public that their words are no longer viewed through the lens of political discourse, and are instead seen as adversaries that need to be tracked. 

The use of military-grade surveillance on Americans is not new. Since 2004, the NYPD has used millimeter-wave detection that can see through walls and clothing, and may even pose a risk to public health. Scanners that were designed to detect roadside IEDs are now able to look inside New Yorkers’ bedrooms at night. Even worse, these machines often operate at the police’s whim, with no review by the courts, legislators, or the public they serve.

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Protestors may not know that IMSI catchers, otherwise known as stingrays, can gobble up all of the unencrypted communications from every phone nearby. They’re often used to capture location data and connect what people say, even in jest, to the identity linked with their cellular accounts. Even if you’ve done nothing illegal that warrants this kind of spying, you could be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and find your private texts used against you in a court of law. 

Drones have been an emblem of American warfare for more than a decade, where they’ve been used to kill thousands of people abroad, and monitor millions more all over the globe. Even the use of armed UAVs began once with “non-offensive” drone deployments, which quickly escalated to the 2020 killing of a sitting Iranian general once that tool became a part of the Trump administration’s arsenal. 

Drone use in domestic policing has become commonplace, with several cities considering 24/7 drone surveillance that can record the activity of all people underneath, every hour of the day and night. In fact, the protests have demonstrated that even terrifying wartime robots like a Predator drone can and will be deployed over American soil, despite a deafening lack of evidence in their usefulness preventing violent crime. 

And, as tensions ease, we can hope the automatic rifles and tear gas will return to storage. The oppressive surveillance, however, will certainly remain. Even without a crisis, authorities nationwide are spying on millions of Americans, mainly in minority communities who have been subject to brutal over-policing for our country’s entire history. In the absence of strong police transparency requirements, we can only imagine what tools police will use to do this, including new tools we will not learn about for years. Trump has called on governors to “track protestors,” which means these wartime technologies may be brandished against peaceful civilians, potentially without any justifying criminal cause. And when they do it, they’ll use the same machines our soldiers use that are designed for global war. 

At this moment where police have exposed the degree of power that they possess and use to exert force on the American public, it has never been clearer that these surveillance technologies will also suppress dissent. They are just as powerful, and as dangerous as the military helicopters staring down protest crowds today. As lawmakers begin to demilitarize community officers, we must also restrict the excessive power that surveillance technologies give to police.

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Liz O’Sullivan is the technology director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P), and co-founder of explainable AI monitoring company Arthur.ai. She works at the UN on the militarization of AI with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots by virtue of her affiliation with the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (I.C.R.A.C.).

Albert Fox Cahn is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law.