Big Brother on the Block: Inside the Street Level Surveillance Hub

Who watches the watchmen? All of us, if we’re smart. In the age of surveillance, that means monitoring how and where the snoops put us under scrutiny. Among the people and organizations doing such important work is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which recently updated one of its countersurveillance tools.

“The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today unveiled its new Street Level Surveillance hub, a standalone website featuring expanded and updated content on various technologies that law enforcement agencies commonly use to invade Americans’ privacy,” the group announced January 10.

Understanding How We’re Being Watched

The hub consolidates information about such evolving and increasingly common technologies as automated license plate readers, biometric surveillance, body-worn cameras, camera networks, cell-site simulators, drones, face recognition, gunshot detection, and social media monitoring. There’s also a news section featuring relevant articles about such topics as the huge amount of data modern cars collect about their drivers and the legal status of surveillance efforts in various jurisdictions.

Not all of the technologies and practices covered by the Street Level Surveillance hub are inherently bad; body-worn cameras (BWCs), for instance, have been championed by reformers as a means of recording interactions between police and the public so that there’s an objective record of events.

“For nearly two decades, law enforcement agencies have explored and implemented the use of body cameras as a tool to help hold officers accountable and make departments more transparent,” PBS News Hour reported in 2020.

But, as EFF points out, “because police often control when BWCs are turned on and how the footage is stored, BWCs often fail to do the one thing they were intended to do: record video of how police interact with the public.” The organization says the cameras should be used only with strict safeguards regarding usage, privacy, and storage of recordings.

Other technologies are more obviously intrusive, such as automated license plate readers (ALPRs) which “capture all license plate numbers that come into view, along with the location, date, and time.” While the readers have the potential to solve crimes by showing who was at the scene, they do so by following people’s movements and can build patterns of life around where people travel and with whom they associate.

“Where you go can reveal many things about you—whether you attend political rallies, which religious institution you attend, if you go to the gun store,” the ACLU’s Allie Bohn warned the South Bend Tribune in 2014 about the use of automated license plate readers.

That was two years after New York City cops were found to be tracking mosque attendance using ALPRs.

EFF engages in extensive litigation to limit the use of ALPRs and to restrict data-sharing among law-enforcement agencies.

Where Are We Being Watched?

The Street Level Surveillance hub integrates closely with EFF’s already established Atlas of Surveillance. Users can search the Atlas for jurisdictions to see what surveillance tools are currently in use in their hometowns or in places they’re visiting.

Unsurprisingly, Washington, D.C. is closely monitored by the powers that be. Residents and visitors in the nation’s capital are scrutinized by automated license plate readers, face recognition scanning by the FBI of driver’s license photos, a registry of private security cameras, gunshot detection microphones (yes, they can overhear conversations), cell-site simulators which pinpoint the locations of phones and their users, and more. The Atlas lists the surveillance tools used in the city and links to more information on them—including the extensive write-ups on the Street Level Surveillance hub.

The Atlas also includes an interactive map of the United States plotting the use of various surveillance technologies, including links to information about local implementations. It’s a handy tool if you’re planning a trip and want to see just how likely it is that you’ll wind up on somebody’s radar (or camera, or microphone). In 2022, I used the map to trace a road trip my son and I took to visit a college campus in Kansas.

“According to the Atlas of Surveillance, we passed through jurisdictions that, in addition to bodycams and doorbell cameras, register private surveillance cameras for official use, monitor the public with drones, detect gunshots, use facial recognition, track cellphones, and automatically check passing license plates against databases,” I wrote at the time.

That route isn’t becoming any more private, but the leg of our journey through northeastern New Mexico and into Kansas remains relatively unmonitored.

For those who truly want to marinate in the Big Brother experience, EFF also offers Spot the Surveillance, a virtual reality tool demonstrating how to identify spying technologies. According to the summary, “the user is placed in a 360-degree scene in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco, where a young resident is in the middle of a police encounter. By looking up, down, and all around, you must identify a variety of surveillance technologies in the environment, including a body-worn camera, automated license plate readers, a drone, a mobile biometric device, and pan-tilt-zoom cameras.”

No, thanks. I’m paranoid enough as it is.

We Can All Watch the Watchmen

For anybody concerned about privacy and surveillance, and interested in how the use of such technologies is implemented and regulated, EFF’s Street Level Surveillance hub offers a handy resource. Instead of wondering just what biometric surveillance is, you can quickly look it up and be simultaneously informed and creeped out by discovering that it “encompasses a collection of methods for tracking individuals using physical or biological characteristics, ranging from fingerprint and DNA collection to gait recognition and heartbeat tracking.”

Biometric surveillance is an evolving field and not yet widely implemented as such, though various technologies under the very broad heading (it includes tattoo recognition) are certainly gaining ground. But it’s closely related to face recognition, which is all over the place.

It’s all just a little bit spooky. But so long as the snoops are watching us—and they are—it’s only fair that we return the favor by keeping an eye on them, too.