The Atlas of Surveillance Turns the Dragnet on Police Tech: 2021 Year in Review

This past year, EFF’s Atlas of Surveillance project mobilized hundreds of student journalists and volunteer researchers to turn the tables on police spying by building the largest ever public-facing database of police surveillance technology.

As EFF has long documented, local law enforcement agencies around the United States are amassing arsenals of surveillance technology to gather as much data as possible on the public. From automated license plate readers (ALPRs) that track our vehicles to real-time crime centers (RTCCs), where police analysts use algorithms to mine live camera streams and social media feeds, this technology has been spreading into communities often under the radar.

The EFF and Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno launched the Atlas of Surveillance in July 2020 as a literal effort to watch the watchers. Combining a variety of newsgathering tools–crowdsourcing, data journalism, and public records requests–the Atlas of Surveillance is an interactive database and map that reveals what surveillance tech is used by more than 4,500 law enforcement agencies nationwide.

The Atlas of Surveillance has two main aims:

The first goal is to create a searchable inventory of police tech that can be used by journalists, researchers, and members of the public to better understand what spy tools police have deployed in their communities and how individual technologies, such as face recognition and body-worn cameras, are spreading across the country.

The second goal is to involve as many people as possible in the information-gathering process. To achieve this we developed a crowdsourcing tool called Report Back that allows us to assign small research tasks (e.g. “Spend up to 20 minutes searching the internet for information about drones in Phoenix, Arizona”). By working with journalism classes and volunteers, we are not only creating a greater resource, but we are also growing the body of people who know how to investigate surveillance technology.

A map of the United States covered in colored dots representing various surveillance technologies.

As we enter the holiday season and the end of our sixth semester with UNR, we’d like to share our achievements and milestones in this largest-of-its-kind effort to document police surveillance:

  • As of December 2021, the Atlas of Surveillance contains more than 8,100 data points — each representing a technology acquired or used by a police agency. That’s a roughly 50% increase in data collection since the launch. We also increased the number of agencies covered from 3,000 in mid-2020 to about 4,500 agencies today, including law enforcement from every U.S. state and territory. However, with approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., we still have a long way to go. 
  • We estimate around 1,000 students and volunteers have completed at least one assignment in Report Back, resulting in more than 2,000 completed research mini-tasks. In addition, UNR data journalism students and EFF interns acquired government surveillance datasets on body-worn cameras and other technologies, and converted them so that thousands of pieces of data could be added to the Atlas. In 2021 we also taught classes using the Atlas at Arizona State University, Temple University, and Harvard University. 
  • The Atlas of Surveillance has also been recognized for its innovation. The Society of Professional Journalists Northern California Chapter presented the team with a prestigious James Madison Freedom of Information Award for its achievements in electronic access to information. The Atlas of Surveillance is also featured in Indiana State University’s Places & Spaces: Mapping Science exhibition, which is currently on display at Notre Dame University through March 2022.  EFF’s new investigative researcher Beryl Lipton also presented a lightning talk on the Atlas at the CATO Surveillance Conference.
  • In March 2022, EFF and UNR student journalist Hailey Rodis published “Scholars Under Surveillance: How Campus Police Use High Tech to Spy on Students,” a deep dive into what the Atlas of Surveillance tells us about university police departments. As a result of this report, we were invited to present our work to journalists covering higher ed at an online training seminar organized by the Education Writers Association. 
  • In fact, the Atlas was regularly used as a training tool for journalists and other watchdogs covering surveillance technology. At the Investigative Reporters & Editors’ NICAR conference, we led a panel discussing reporting techniques with several journalists whose work is featured in the Atlas, including Neil Bedi, whose reporting on the Pasco County Sheriff’s predictive policing program later won a Pulitzer Prize for the Tampa Bay Times. The Global Investigative Journalism Network featured the Atlas in its “Tips to Uncover the Spy Tech Your Government Buys.” We also trained members of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, who serve on police review boards, using the Atlas in a lesson about surveillance technologies and the types of civil rights abuses they can facilitate. That in-depth training is now available to all on YouTube.
  • Freedom of the Press Foundation incorporated the Atlas of Surveillance into its new curriculum for teaching digital security at journalism schools. Our partnership with UNR was highlighted as one of only two digital security electrive courses offered a journalism schools in the U.S.
  • Reporters and researchers frequently use the Atlas when covering surveillance tech. For example, you’ll find the Atlas referenced in national reporting from organizations such as The Guardian, Axios, and OneZero and also in stories reaching communities through local publications such as Bethesda Magazine, Mendocino Voice, Phoenix New Times, Merced Sun-TimesNews 13 Orlando, The Lens, and the Pioneer Press. The Atlas has also fueled academic and advocacy research, such as in papers published by the Berkeley Political Review, the Belfer Center at Harvard University, and the Immigrant Defense Project.

We can’t close out the year without giving credit to the many people outside of EFF who’ve collaborated with us on the project. Many thanks to the faculty at the UNR Reynolds School, especially Associate Dean Gi Yun and professors Patrick File, Ran Duan and Paro Pain, and 2021 student researchers Jayme Sileo, Dylan Kubeny, and Taylor Johnson. We are also very grateful to Paul Tepper, a volunteer who is single-handedly responsible for hundreds of datapoints in the Atlas. We are also proud to collaborate with Data 4 Black Lives on its #NoMoreDataWeapons campaign to increase awareness of surveillance tech in regions with large Black populations and a history of over-policing.

In the coming year, we will continue to grow not only the Atlas but the body of contributors to the project. To learn more about opportunities to collaborate, don’t hesitate to reach out.

This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2021.

Source: The Atlas of Surveillance Turns the Dragnet on Police Tech: 2021 Year in Review

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