A Pandemic of Surveillance

Americans are increasingly monitored, and COVID-19 health concerns aren’t improving the situation.


Pandemic maps are all the rage, these days, but the latest one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a little different; instead of viral hotspots, it displays a plague of official snoopiness, arranged by location and sortable by technology. While it documents intrusions that predate the current crisis, the Atlas of Surveillance is all too relevant to the age of coronavirus. Concerns about curtailing contagion help to normalize detailed scrutiny of people's lives and drive us toward a pervasive surveillance state.

"The Atlas of Surveillance database, containing several thousand data points on over 3,000 city and local police departments and sheriffs' offices nationwide, allows citizens, journalists, and academics to review details about the technologies police are deploying, and provides a resource to check what devices and systems have been purchased locally," EFF announced on July 13.

Users can click on the map to see what surveillance technologies are used in specified localities. If you want to see what's going on in your area, the map is searchable by the name of a city, county, or state. The map can also be filtered according to technologies such as body-worn cameras, drones, and automated license plate readers.

The nearest entry to me is in Prescott Valley, Arizona, where the police department is among the hundreds that have partnered with Ring, the Amazon-owned doorbell-camera company.

The Ring partnerships don't give police live feeds, but they can request video recordings regarding a specific time and area. While participation by Ring customers is voluntary, the partnerships are "a clever workaround for the development of a wholly new surveillance network, without the kind of scrutiny that would happen if it was coming from the police or government," warns Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia's David A. Clarke School of Law and author of The Rise of Big Data Policing.

Researchers find few crimes solved by the voluntary surveillance partnerships, but the home-security marketing of the Ring arrangement nudges the culture toward an easier acceptance of a panopticon that operates outside of the full range of civil liberties protections.

Also easing America's slide toward a full surveillance state is fear of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health officials who, just months ago, fretted about overcoming privacy concerns with regard to contact-tracing schemes have turned to governments' usual solution: threatening harsh penalties for noncompliance.

"Travelers from certain states landing at New York airports starting Tuesday could face a $2,000 fine for failing to fill out a form that state officials will use to track travelers and ensure they're following quarantine restrictions," AP reported this week.

Mandatory tracking forms for travelers to New York follow on Rockland County's earlier efforts to compel cooperation with contact tracers.

"Commissioner of Health Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert urged residents to comply with the Department of Health's contact tracing efforts and threatened those who do not comply with subpoenas and $2,000 per day fines," the county announced on July 1.

We can hope that health-related snooping into people's movements and activities will come to an end when the pandemic passes, but these things have a way of getting embedded in the culture as people become accustomed to them. In the name of controlling infection, many private companies are now closely monitoring employees, including their proximity to one another in the workplace.

"Privacy advocates warn the tracing apps are a slippery slope toward 'normalizing' an unprecedented new level of employer surveillance," notes Politico.

"Aggressive expansion of surveillance programs without adequate checks could normalize privacy intrusions and create systems that may later be used for various forms of political and social repression," frets Freedom House.

That novel invasions of privacy which might once have set off alarms can become the new normal is clear from public-private surveillance partnerships of the sort that Ring developed with police departments. After the Supreme Court ruled that police need a warrant to access cellphone location data in Carpenter v. United States (2018), law enforcement quickly started purchasing data from private marketing firms.

"The Trump administration has bought access to a commercial database that maps the movements of millions of cellphones in America and is using it for immigration and border enforcement," the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year. "Experts say the information amounts to one of the largest known troves of bulk data being deployed by law enforcement in the U.S.—and that the use appears to be on firm legal footing because the government buys access to it from a commercial vendor."

In a growing trend, other agencies, including the FBI and the IRS, have also turned to private sources to monitor social media posts and track cellphone movements. The new surveillance technique is quickly becoming widely established.

Likewise, even after COVID-19 fades to an unpleasant memory, we may find that it has left a legacy of intrusive monitoring of our whereabouts and social connections—all for our own good, we'll be told.

For now, the growing incidence of public health surveillance is too new and low-tech to be included in the Atlas of Surveillance, which is plenty full as it is.

Selecting "automated license plate readers" reveals dense clusters in California, and in urban areas and along major highways elsewhere.

Clicking on "drones" reveals that they monitor much of the country—especially east of the Mississippi River and along the West Coast—from the sky.

A look at "face recognition technology" shows that it is especially popular in Florida and around Washington, D.C.

As thoroughly monitored as the atlas reveals the country to be, it's far from complete and EFF invites volunteers to assist in collecting data. As new information trickles in, that map will undoubtedly fill in with new jurisdictions and surveillance efforts as time goes on.

The Atlas of Surveillance will probably fill in with new monitoring technologies, too, including some driven by public health concerns. For officials looking for reasons to poke their noses into other people's business, the pandemic is as good an excuse as any.

NEXT: Justin Amash's Tenure as the Libertarian Party's First Member in Congress Will Be Shortlived

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  1. Has nobody at REASON figured out that “Covid Health concerns” are a steaming pile of bullshit?

    1. Everyone at Reason has figured that out.
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  4. They use face recog here in Italy everywhere and I don’t even know why or what it does. We just line up and do what we’re told. I’m kinda embarrassed to be from this time period.

  5. Surveillance and face recognition will be everywhere soon enough – not from government or corporations, but from every kid with AR glasses and access to public databases. The reason is that this technology is not difficult – it is the first assignment in their ML101 class. With something so easy to try out by mass population, any thought that it can be prevented is laughable.

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    The FBI Is Secretly Using A $2 Billion Travel Company As A Global Surveillance Tool

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      1. Nice little bot ya got there, be a shame if something happened to it.

        1. Sadly, the bots are becoming the more literate and interesting posts here.

          1. Interesting, literate message board posts may be unconvential, but sad?

  9. Isn’t that what the whole mask wearing is supposed to obscure? So we need Faraday pockets to drop our phones in so they aren’t tracking the phone. Given the ratio of spammers, scammers, robots, and politician calls to calls I’m willing to answer, the loss of the few calls blocked by the Faraday pocket when out and about are worth it and when using it as a shopping list there’s always “airplane mode” when actually in the store.

    1. One more thing that makes me glad I don’t have a smart phone.

  10. In the beginning, Covid was a concern.

    Now it’s an outright scam.

    1. I despise Trump, but I have a sneaky feeling that if Deep State Joe somehow drools his way to an election victory, that starting about 5 November that COVID will miraculously be much less dangerous than it is now.

      Of course, the surveillance will stay…

      1. Sucks you’ve been taken in by the media narrative of who to vote for. It happens to the best of us I guess.

        There is no point in taking sides in partisanry. Just objectively discern the information as best you can.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is – if you’re representing that you are skeptical and savvy, at least try not to get emotionally invested in hot button topics – it’ll save you a lot of time sifting through the lies you inadvertently absorbed, not to mention you won’t appear to be such a fucking retard in public forums.

        1. Probably good advice …

          You’ve got to do your own homework if you want liberty to win.

          Provisional standards only take you so far — to the diving board. You can jump off with everybody else in line or climb back down. Fine.

          Ultimately, you can’t expect anything to get done until the smarter Man arrives, IMO, to game the status quo in fact.

  11. Man, that’s a bummer. I was really looking forward to going to NY next month. NOT.

  12. Orwell was a genius.

    1. Orwell also got shot through the throat volunteering for the Marxist Workers’ Unification Party militia in Spain. His Homage to Catalonia is almost the documentary version of 1984. The tortures in that book were all used by secret police in Bolshevik Russia, including the rodents.

    2. Are you a cop?

  13. Thanks for a calm and interesting report by Tucille.

  14. You know what they say, at one point Korea and America had the same amount of cases. If you got tested Korea, they made you download a tracking app on your phone.

    Had we given up a bit of our freedom, we wouldn’t in this mess. Donald Trump should have ordered mandatory tracking on anyone who got tested in March, and forced anyone who tested positive to stay home under threat of fines and jail time. And anyone who flies in (even from NY) would have been hit with a mandatory 14 day quarantine period, like Korea.

    “Trump does EXACTLY what Korea did, emerges as American hero” the NYT would have said.

    1. “Trump imposes Fascist controls on people’s freedom of movement and ability to do business. Also racist.”

      Seems more likely. Even though that’s exactly what they want now.

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    Crimes of force, fraud, and coersion would be serious crimes, yes.

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