A Few Surveillance Technologies Police are Using: Combating Crime or Keeping Track of You?

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

Kelly Chen (2014), a News Engagement Specialist for the Center for Investigative Reporting recently posted a short, but interesting, essay listing the “7 mass surveillance tools your local police might be using.” Her article is worth a look and provides some links to various sources as well as some of the manufactures of these technologies. Of course, how police use surveillance technologies is always concerning. She outlined these “military-inspired technologies” as follows:

  1. Wide-area surveillance, which involves the use of manned aircrafts that have cameras, attached to them that allow police to watch and playback the movement of people and vehicles in a given area. Both the LAPD and the LA County Sheriff’s Office are reported to have been using this technology. The technology has been used on Compton residents without their knowledge.
  2. Facial recognition software, which can be used to run your facial characteristics against law enforcement databases or perhaps even the data collected from the above-mentioned wide-area surveillance data. Chen claims that this program was deployed in San Diego County “out without any public hearing or notice.”
  3. License-plate scanners, which allow police to ride around and collect location and license plate numbers of the vehicles that come into view of the scanner. Even medium-sized departments now have this technology, store the data and share it with fusion centers. Chen reports that a “San Leandro Police Department car can log thousands of plates in an eight-hour patrol shift.” Officers, however, tell me that the technology fails more often than it works. Makers of the hardware and software often require police to agree to non-disclosures before using the technology.
  4. Streetlights with recording capabilities, which involves placing cameras into ordinary streetlights, which can be connected to wireless Internet for video recording and storage. According to Chen Las Vegas police “are not using these features – they just have the ability to do so.”
  5. Behavioral recognition software, which Tampa police reported using during the 2012 Republican National Convention. According to Chen the technology “uses camera footage to automate suspicious activity detection.” One can only speculate as to what constitutes “suspicious activity.”
  6. Stingray, which according to the ACLU is “a device that mimics a cell tower and thereby tricks all wireless devices on the same network into communicating with it.” Chen reports that, “In California, multiple local agencies from the Bay Area to Sacramento have been using Stingray technology to track and collect cell phone data in real time….” These mobile devices “trick cell phones into connecting to them as if they were cell phone towers. The technology gives police the ability to track phone movements and intercept both phone calls and text messages of any cell phone within range” (Patrick, 2014). Police again are said to refuse to comment on the technology.
  7. Intelligence analysis software, which is a technology being used by the LAPD that allows data mining and is funded, at least in part, by the CIA.

While the use of surveillance tools by the police in the U.S. is variegated across the law enforcement institutions and the effectiveness of many of these technologies is still very questionable, it is clear that police are quickly expanding their use of these technologies and more often than not using them without significant judicial review.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


Patrick, W. (2014). SPY COPS: Court records show the Tallahassee Police Department has been secretly spying on cell phone users. http://watchdog.org/131254/local-police-spy/

Chen, K. (2014). 7 mass surveillance tools your local police might be using. http://cironline.org/blog/post/7-mass-surveillance-tools-your-local-poli...

Published on July 22, 2014