It Ain’t Just the NSA — Your Local Cops Could Be Spying on You

It’s not just the NSA anymore. Here’s how local law enforcement collects your call data, even if unrelated to crime.

By now, it’s well known that the National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting troves of data about law-abiding Americans. But the NSA is not alone: a series of new reports show that state and local police have been busy collecting data on our daily activities as well – under questionable or nonexistent legal pretenses. These revelations about the extent of police snooping in the U.S. – and the lack of oversight over it – paint a disturbing picture for anyone who cares about civil liberties and privacy protection.

The tactics used by law enforcement are aggressive, surreptitious, and surprising to even longtime surveillance experts. One report released last month made front page news: an investigation by more than 50 journalists that found that local law enforcement agencies are collecting cell phone data about thousands of innocent Americans each year by tapping into cellphone towers and even creating fake ones that act as data traps.

A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law details how police departments around the country have created data “fusion centers” to collect and share reports about residents. But the information in these reports seldom bears any relation to crime or terrorism. In California, for example, officers are encouraged to document and immediately report on “suspicious” activities such as “individuals who stay at bus or train stops for extended periods while buses and trains come and go,” “individuals who carry on long conversations on pay or cellular phones,” and “joggers who stand and stretch for an inordinate amount of time.” In Houston, Texas, the criteria are so broad they include anything deemed “suspicious or worthy of reporting.” Many police departments and fusion centers have reported on constitutionally protected activities such as photography andpolitical speech. They have also demonstrated a troubling tendency to focus on people who appear to be of Middle Eastern origin.

Like the NSA — their heavy-handed Big Brother — these fusion centers cast a wide net and risk civil liberties for paltry returns. And all of it is happening without sufficient oversight or accountability. In other words, no one is watching Little Brother.

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