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The Sheriff’s Department’s Operation Lemon Drop represents the most aggressive use of data and surveillance to catch potential bad guys. It also adds to the file of how law enforcement is keeping tabs on San Diegans.
Law enforcement agencies across the state have had to grapple with realignment, the 2011 law that ushered many non-violent, non-serious offenders out of prison.
But San Diego County is alone, it appears, in its approach — analysts combs through public data to track the ex-inmates who they consider “prolific offenders,” then the Sheriff’s Department enacts massive sweeps to try and catch them in the midst of an offense.
It’s probably the most aggressive “Minority Report”-esque local law enforcement tactic we’ve learned about recently. But it’s not the only example of cops harnessing technology to keep close tabs on San Diego residents.
We just don’t know how often, or who they’re targeting — or really any details at all. Those details are the subject of a lawsuit against the San Diego Police Department. A free speech advocacy group wants the city to disclose information about the StingRay technology it uses:
The StingRay technology, by contrast, is “live”: It grabs signals from the airwaves in real time and provides cops with data about all cell phones that transmit in the area by tricking the phones into thinking the StingRay device is a cell tower.
The technology could potentially be used to track people as they move around with their cell phones, even inside private buildings.
VOSD reader Michael Robertson sniffed around this activity last summer when he wrote about Blufax devices, which can track certain smartphones. San Diego uses these to measure traffic speed and car volume on roadways. Though Robertson never got the documents he wanted to show whether law enforcement was using Blufax and StingRay technology in conjunction, the potential looms large:
The police have phony cell phone towers called StingRays that trick phones into revealing their whereabouts. Might these devices also be used in conjunction with Bluetooth scanning? It’s unclear because a request for documents on this technology was mostly rejected. San Diego police turned over a single — heavily redacted — document.
The government is invisibly collecting data on Bluetooth-equipped smartphones along roadways. It’s logical to assume this collection will expand to other public areas, as the scanners are relatively cheap and portable. Since smartphones are increasingly integrated into our everyday lives, they make a tantalizing tool for precise tracking.
On paper, SDPD’s Operation Secure San Diego sounds especially sinister: Since 2010, the department has been trying to build a surveillance network with “access to public and private cameras all over the city to deter crime, collect evidence, provide a live feed of crime scenes and identify ‘questionable individuals or conduct,” Andrew Keatts reported.
But as Keatts found, things didn’t quite pan out:
SDPD says it has access to cameras at 41 addresses around the city as part of Operation Secure San Diego.
Half of those are useless. The cameras on site at 20 addresses use software that’s incompatible with the department’s operating system.
And one of the system’s benefits SDPD highlighted most — that officers could see live footage of a crime scene as they respond, potentially revolutionizing responses to serious situations like active shooters — is functionally nonexistent.
Law enforcement agencies across the county have been using license-plate readers to track movements of drivers every day, CityBeat reported in 2013:
Even as you read this, police cars equipped with LPR are patrolling the streets, automatically scanning and photographing every license plate in sight, tagging each with a GPS coordinate and filing the information away. For years.
With 36 million scans and counting—an average of 14 for every registered vehicle in the county—the database provides a mappable, searchable record of the movements of thousands of individual drivers. It’s sort of like FourSquare for cops, except that it’s involuntary, the data is secret and there aren’t quite as many narcissistic hipsters.
And last we heard, some two dozen agencies around San Diego County were also testing facial recognition technology to ID people in the field. Officers carried tablets with facial recognition software to compare people they stopped to local mug shots. Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Dave Maass told CBS 8 last year there were major concerns about what could come next.
“You can use it to take security camera footage and run an identity check on that. You can grab Facebook images and run an identity check on that,” said Maass.
“Let’s say the police are videotaping a crowd of protestors. Then can turn around and they can use this facial recognition software to start identifying the people in the crowd,” said Maass. “That’s problematic. It’s problematic for free speech. It’s problematic for freedom of association. It’s problematic for privacy.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation wants SANDAG to implement strict privacy and usage guidelines before facial recognition software goes mainstream with local police agencies.
“Local law enforcement has this way of taking a technology before it’s been regulated and pushing it to the extreme,” Maass said.