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Data Map Illustrates Surveillance by Massachusetts Police

According to a new database called the Atlas of Surveillance, at least 18 police departments have partnerships with Amazon’s home security company, Ring, and another 17 agencies operate drones.

A DJI Inspire 2 drone
A DJI Inspire 2 drone in flight.
(TNS) — Law enforcement agencies may be able to keep watch over their communities in more ways than one.

A slew of surveillance technologies are in the hands of dozens of law enforcement agencies across Massachusetts, a new online map shows.

According to the searchable database, called the “Atlas of Surveillance,” at least 18 police departments in the state have partnerships with Amazon’s home security company, Ring, and another 17 law enforcement agencies operate drones.

Only two police departments it appears, Attleboro’s and Westfield’s, have both partnerships with Ring and operate drones, the atlas shows.

After learning the city he lives in was on the Atlas of Surveillance, Westfield resident Trevor Eckhart filed a public records request with the community’s police department to see how the agency uses both drones and Ring.

As a software programmer, Ekhart argued he knows that certain surveillance technologies, although sometimes useful for law enforcement’s investigations, can pose potentially serious risks.

He pointed to facial recognition technology - a software that remains largely unrestricted - despite it being been widely criticized for its inaccuracies, its potential to violate individuals’ civil liberties and its racial biases.

For instance, earlier this year, police in Detroit arrested Robert Williams, a Black man living in a suburb of the Michigan city, based on a false identification provided by facial recognition software.

Williams was taken into custody on his front lawn in front of his family and jailed for nearly 30 hours, according to the ACLU.

However, facial recognition technology is largely not used in Massachusetts, and those working in public safety have argued Amazon Ring and drones, which are not weaponized, are far less of a threat to the public.

In Westfield, the city’s two drones have provided aerial shots that have proven “invaluable” in understanding the nature and scope of particular incidents, according to the city’s police chief, Lawrence Valliere.

From monitoring protests to keeping watch over forest fires, drones can be used for a range of tasks, the police chief pointed out.

They could be deployed, for example, during an active shooter situation, to document a crime scene or to assist with fires or hazardous material spills, he said.

“It assists us in planning and coordinating an effective response to an ongoing situation or for future events. Better known as ‘situational awareness,’” Valliere wrote in an email. “I’m sure you have looked at Google Earth and found the perspective to be amazing.”

Still, Ekhart, who has lodged a complaint with the city’s police department about its drone use, said there needs to be “more accountability, more visibility” in terms of how the agency deploys surveillance technologies.

“I’m a privacy advocate, and when I saw Westfield on the map here, it appears that Westfield’s overusing this technology,” Ekhart told MassLive. “Between Ring and Drones, that set me off.”

Surveillance technologies in Massachusetts

The Atlas of Surveillance has been called the “largest-ever repository of information” on what surveillance technologies law enforcement agencies are using and where, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.

The California-based nonprofit created the online map with the University of Nevada, Reno Reynolds School of Journalism, with the aim of allowing people to see what software is being used by police departments across the country.

“Law enforcement surveillance isn’t always secret,” the foundation says on its website. “These technologies can be discovered in news articles and government meeting agendas, in company press releases and social media posts. It just hasn’t been aggregated before.”

The organization’s data was made public in July, as debates over the structure and role of law enforcement continue to rage across the U.S. in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in May after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.

Floyd’s death sparked countless protests throughout the country and the world, calling for an end to racial violence and police brutality.

According to the Atlas of Surveillance, the full list of Massachusetts law enforcement agencies that operate drones includes municipal police departments in Andover, Attleboro, Barnstable, Boston, Franklin, Gardner, Oxford, Methuen, Natick, Northampton, Swansea, Tewksbury, Westborough, Westfield and Yarmouth as well as the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Office and Massachusetts State Police.

Those who have partnerships with Ring include the Attleboro, Burlington, Chicopee, Dartmouth, Everette, Harwich, Haverhill, Hingham, Lowell, Malden, Mattapoisett, Needham, Norwood, Springfield, Quincy, Wellesley, Westfield and Worcester police departments.

In Massachusetts, a bill that aims to reform law enforcement practices and create systems of accountability for police wrongdoing may soon be finalized. Six state lawmakers, it was announced last month, will be drafting the final version of the piece of legislation.

Both the Massachusetts State House and Senate’s versions of the criminal justice reform package would create new commissions to certify police officers and decertify those who have committed misconduct, the State House News Service reported.

One of the major areas where the legislative bodies differ, though, is in their approaches to limiting qualified immunity, a U.S. Supreme Court-issued doctrine that protects police officers from civil lawsuits for wrongdoing.

Discussions about demilitarizing and reducing the surveillance capabilities of police departments are also occurring in some Massachusetts communities.

Facial recognition, a piece of software that uses artificial intelligence in conjunction with databases of photographs to identify individuals spotted in images, is one such technology that is being hotly debated in the commonwealth.

So far, the software remains largely unregulated at both the state and federal levels, so several communities in Massachusetts and other states have taken it upon themselves to restrict the use of the technology, which has been criticized for its racial biases and potential to violate civil liberties.

Seven towns or cities in the commonwealth have either fully or temporarily banned the software, the majority in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which has been running a campaign since last year that seeks to raise public awareness about the dangers of facial recognition.

EFF’s online map shows a wide array of the “most pervasive” surveillance technologies police departments are using throughout the country. Among them: facial recognition.

In Massachusetts, use of the software is largely nonexistent among local police departments, though at the state and federal levels, that’s a different story.

The state Registry of Motor Vehicles uses the technology to identify potential fraud when issuing driver’s licenses, and Massachusetts State Police sometimes deploys the software in criminal investigations to help identify unknown suspects.

Any identifications made with the technology are then either confirmed or rejected through other investigative methods, according to David Procopio, spokesman for the agency.

Boston Logan International Airport also became one of 18 airports where U.S. Customs and Border Protection is able to use face recognition technology in March 2019, according to EFF.

Amazing Ring, Drones and facial recognition are only a few of the surveillance technologies mentioned on EFF’s site.

The foundation’s database includes information about automated license plate readers as well as body-worn cameras, camera registries, cell-site simulators, predictive policing, gunshot detection and fusion centers, hubs that serve as focal points for states and major urban areas to share threat-related information, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

People can search for information on what surveillance technologies a law enforcement agency is using by clicking on cities, towns or regions in the United States. They can also look up the locations by name or search by specific technologies.

Some of the site’s data is outdated, though.

For example, according to the database, Northampton’s police department has only two drones, even though the Hampshire County law enforcement agency has four drones in its inventory.

EFF also says the Westfield Police Department operates a single drone, despite the public safety agency getting a second one last year that has more flight capabilities.

“One was donated, and the other was part of an emergency management grant,” Valliere said. “Both can obviously be used outdoors, but the second can also be deployed inside of large buildings. It is a smaller drone and has different features that allow for it to be effective indoors.”

Despite some outdated information on the online map, the database is expansive and provides and unprecedented look at law enforcement’s surveillance capabilities in the United States.

Around 500 students, teachers, volunteers, journalists and other researchers worked on the project, aggregating information from government websites, news outlets’ reporting and other sources to create their massive database.

More than 5,000 data points have been amassed across roughly 3,000 jurisdictions, EFF noted. The foundation claimed its crowdsourced information only reveals the tip of the iceberg.

“[Our research] underlines the need for journalists and members of the public to continue demanding transparency from criminal justice agencies,” EFF said.

Eyes from your doorstep: How Amazon Ring works

Ekhart told MassLive that he believes the use of Amazon Ring and drones by Westfield and other communities in Massachusetts falls into the ongoing national dialogue about what policing should look like in the U.S.

The Westfield resident said both technologies may have some effective uses. For example, drones, Ekhart said, could be used to assist law enforcement during a hostage situation.

However, the Westfield resident argued police departments need to be more transparent about how they use the surveillance technologies included on EFF’s database.

“There definitely needs some oversight on this. It’s not perfect,” Ekhart said.

The Westfield Police Department, according to EFF’s map, signed an agreement with the Amazon home surveillance equipment company Ring last year to gain special access to the company’s Neighbors Public Safety Service application.

Serving as another set of eyes that can look out from someone’s doorstep, Amazon Ring is a doorbell-security camera that sends surveillance footage to individuals’ phones.

The company’s police partnerships are widespread as well, with more than 1,300 law enforcement agencies using the service, EFF reported in June.

The Neighbors application is a neighborhood watch service Amazon promotes in conjunction with its Ring devices that allows residents as well as law enforcement agencies to share videos and security concerns, though EFF claimed such systems can lead to racial profiling.

Ring, meanwhile, has posited that its technology allows “public safety officials to connect, communicate and share hyper-local updates with their communities.” On its website, the company also claims its services have helped local law enforcement agencies solve cases.

“One Virginia Beach family was able to quickly recover stolen medical supplies for their diabetic child after sharing a video of the package theft on Neighbors,” the company said. “Thanks to the app, a neighbor spotted the suspect and alerted local law enforcement who then made an arrest and located the missing package.”

In regard to concerns about racial profiling, Ring employs trained moderators to ensure all content on its Neighbors portal is reviewed before it goes public. The aim is to make sure no posts violate restrictions against hate speech, discrimination or racial profiling.

Ring’s partnership with the Westfield Police Department, signed in November 2019, makes the Neighbors application available to residents and the department free of charge, but it restricts WPD from sharing control over the surveillance system portal with anyone who is not a member of the agency.

The portal must only be used for legitimate law enforcement purposes, the policy also notes.

According to officials, residents’ Ring devices are secure and their accounts private. Public safety officials will never access a person’s security system unless they are given permission to do so by the homeowner/subscriber.

It is up to the subscriber to share their surveillance footage with police, Valliere noted, adding that the software “can certainly be of great assistance to law enforcement.”

The process for trying to obtain video from Ring devices is extensive as well, according to the Westfield police chief.

“For example, if we have a number of car breaks in a particular area, there is a process where we contact Ring,” Valliere said. “We then provide them with the particulars of when, where and what we are looking for. Ring then contacts individuals in the problem area that subscribe to them. They then advise the subscribers as to what the police are investigating and that they are interested in any video related to the problem.”

So far in 2019, eight requests for law enforcement assistance have been sent via Ring to the Westfield Police Department. The submissions have ranged from reports of packages being stolen and vandalism to cars being broken into.

For officers, the device provides a digital alternative to canvassing door to door.

“This certainly can save a lot of man-hours by not having to canvas a neighborhood on foot,” Valliere said. “It also may provide the information that solves the crime and identifies the perpetrator.”

The restrictions and benefits of drones

While Amazon Ring can provide surveillance on the ground, drones give law enforcement eyes up above.

However, the technology comes with restrictions.

Westfield police’s eight-page policy on manning drones, also called small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), requires that the Western Massachusetts police department get proper permitting and authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration before deploying any sUAS.

Like Northampton’s police department, Westfield must also have individuals specially trained to use the aircraft.

Although the devices come with a slew of rules, the wide scope of their uses may be surprising.

In terms of what the department is allowed to surveil, WPD can use drones when responding to emergency incidents and “exigent circumstances,” which encompass a range of situations.

Appropriate uses may include searches and rescues, tactical deployments during incidents involving hostages or barricades and the documentation of a crime scene.

Drones also allowed to be used to help Westfield police officers manage traffic, provide perimeter security and inspect infrastructures, such as buildings, bridges and roadways.

The department’s two unmanned aircraft are available to help other public agencies in the city as well.

The devices provide “great value” to Westfield’s conservation office when investigating complaints or illegal dumping that would normally not be readily seen, according to Valliere.

Akin to Amazon Ring, the police department’s two drones can similarly cut down man-hours, particularly when being used to monitor the city’s two reservoirs, which require constant oversight, according to the police chief.

“The drone is also used to help our fire department when requested,” he added. “It can help them determine the scale and direction of forest fires, which helps with tactical decisions. It also provides information regarding the integrity of a roof during a fire as well as documenting the fire itself.”

‘Put a drone up, you don’t need to have any contact': Controversies surrounding the technology

According to logs of recorded sUAS flights by the Westfield Police Department, the law enforcement agency has deployed its unmanned aircrafts more than 30 times since June 2018.

One section of the department’s drone policy prohibits Westfield police from collecting data with its drone solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the U.S. Constitution, such as the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly.

Ekhart believes the department violated this part of its sUAS policy when it deployed one of its drones on June 4 in response to a call from Park Square.

On the same day and at the same time the drone was deployed, a rally to protest racism and police brutality was held near Broad and Main Streets in proximity to Park Square, the Westfield resident noted.

The software programmer filed a complaint against WPD in late July when he saw that the dates and times lined up. Ekhart told MassLive that he was worried police used one of its drones to monitor the protest.

“I am making a complaint that on June 4, 2020, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Park Square, a local BLM protest was held, and per a FOIA request, the police used a drone at this exact same time and location, which is against hundreds of citizens’ civil rights, the documented Westfield policy and potentially the law,” Ekhart wrote in his complaint.

Westfield’s police chief confirmed that the department put up one of its drones during the protest for “situational awareness.”

The drone was not used to identify protesters or any individual, he noted.

“It allowed us to see the size of the crowd, detect and manage disturbances, gauge the stability of the event, track its movement and monitor traffic flow,” Valliere said.

Monitoring large public gatherings like protests does not appear to be an uncommon use for drones in Massachusetts.

In Northampton, the city’s police department has also deployed its unmanned aircraft during a recent demonstration in support of Black Lives Matter.

The law enforcement agency is allowed to use the technology to monitor protests, and it has been effective in avoiding potential conflict, Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper explained.

“Put a drone up, you don’t need to have any contact between uniformed officers and protesters,” Kasper said. “Our goal with any protest is to provide a safe and secure spot.”

She added, “This is a way we can watch things from a distance. It has been very effective in monitoring these scenes.”

©2020, Springfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.