Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters

27/10/2013 00:11
 

 

Promotional materials for private spy companies show that mass surveillance technology is being sold to police departments as a way to monitor dissent

 

A number of private spying companies offer services to help police keep tabs on individual protesters' tweets and Facebook posts.

Fuse

The documents leaked to media outlets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden this year have brought national intelligence gathering and surveillance operations under a level of scrutiny not seen in decades. Often left out of this conversation, though, is the massive private surveillance industry that provides services to law enforcement, defense agencies and corporations in the U.S. and abroad – a sprawling constellation of companies and municipalities. "It's a circle where everyone [in these industries] is benefitting," says Eric King, lead researcher of watchdog group Privacy International. "Everyone gets more powerful, and richer."

Promotional materials for numerous private spy companies boast of how law enforcement organizations can use their products to monitor people at protests or other large crowds – including by keeping tabs on individual people's social media presence. Kenneth Lipp, a journalist who attended the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia from October 19th to 23rd, tells Rolling Stone that monitoring Twitter and Facebook was a main theme of the week. "Social media was the buzzword," says Lipp. He says much of the discussion seemed to be aimed at designing policies that wouldn't trigger potentially limiting court cases: "They want to avoid a warrant standard."

While the specifics of which police departments utilize what surveillance technologies is often unclear, there is evidence to suggest that use of mass surveillance against individuals not under direct investigation is common. "The default is mass surveillance, the same as NSA's 'collect it all' mindset," says King. "There's not a single company that if you installed their product, [it] would comply with what anyone without a security clearance would think is appropriate, lawful use."

The YouTube page for a company called NICE, for instance, features a highly produced video showing how its products can be used in the event of a protest. "The NICE video analytic suite alerts on an unusually high occupancy level in a city center," a narrator says as the camera zooms in on people chanting and holding signs that read "clean air" and "stop it now." The video then shows authorities redirecting traffic to avoid a bottleneck, and promises that all audio and video from the event will be captured and processed almost immediately. "The entire event is then reconstructed on a chronological timeline, based on all multimedia sources," says the narrator. According to an interview with the head of NICE's security division published in Israel Gateway, NICE systems are used by New Jersey Transit and at the Statue of Liberty, though it isn't clear if they are the same products shown in the video.

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