Smart Cities: Wired for Injustice

This article originally appeared en español in Bulletin #13 of Oficina Antivigilancia (also en português) on 1 March 2016. It is Creative Commons Licensed. 

Smart Cities: Wired for Injustice

The cities of the future might be wired for efficiency and sustainability, but without serious changes in how they’re being built, they’re going to be wired for injustice, too.

Smart cities use technology to improve quality of life. But for who? And to what end? They may be able to deliver services more efficiently and sustainably, but unless they are built with human rights in mind, they also replicate existing structures of injustice. The pervasive surveillance and reliance on biased algorithms that characterize smart cities increase criminalization of society’s most marginalized people, without truly increasing their quality of life.

The smart city concept

There are many definitions of smart cities, but the general consensus is that they use technology to improve networks and services. Smart cities often rely on “sensorsembedded in roadways, power grids, buildings and other assets.” Software analyzes data from these sensors and determines how to improve services for a given value, such as energy efficiency.

Smart surveillance

It’s all those sensors that make smart cities such perfect panopticons. Corporations like Microsoft and Schneider Electric have been key in pushing for the spread of technologies such as:

Most critiques of smart cities have focused on privacy in general, not law enforcement per se. That’s understandable, since privacy and freedom are interdependent. But that broad focus ignores the fact that how law enforcement behaves is the most important marker of freedom for many people around the world. As the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed just recently, there’s no question that law enforcement will use “the [internet of things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials…”

The Internet of Things includes smart cities technologies. What’s more, law enforcement can aggregate and analyze the data collected by smart cities. The data the NSA collected by spying on phone call records allowed the government to determine social networks, medical conditions, religious beliefs and more. Smart city data will be even more comprehensive and revealing.

Predictive policing and smart cities

Law enforcement practices are already being altered by technology. But is this making policing better? If your definition of better is doing more of what police have always done, maybe.

Predictive policing uses historical crime data to determine where crime is most likely to occur, so that departments can direct resources to those areas. It sounds innocuous enough, but as myriad social scientists and statisticians have pointed out, that historical data is based on biased police practices.

In fact, predictive policing software like PredPol isn’t doing much more than law enforcement has always done. As Sgt. Steve Armon of Dallas Police Department admits, “a lot of times, these companies can’t tell us things we don’t already know. We have our own crime analysis group, and we already apply the same principles they’re using.”

Drug arrests in the United States are a perfect example of bias in crime data. Black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for selling drugs, even though whites are actually more likely to sell them. Black Americans are also 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possessing drugs, even though about the same percentage of black and white Americans use drugs.

Data-based policing may be very good at predicting where to arrest black people, but that’s hardly an improvement. In the United States black people are incarcerated at 6 times the rate of whites, and black Americans already “represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses.”

Chicago’s “custom notifications” program provides a chilling example of how this bias plays out. Officers make personal visits to individuals based partly on an algorithm that determines that they are highly likely to be involved in a violent crime. The officers may offer social services or “a tailored warning” to let them know that the police are watching them.

Chicago police tortured black residents of the Southside for decades and covered it up. They continue to shoot dead the city’s black residents and hinder investigations into those shootings. Increasing police contact with the city’s residents of color without addressing these problems hardly seems like the best use of city resources.

What’s more, the algorithm being used by the police department is key, but it’s shrouded in secrecy. The people marked for custom notifications haven’t ever necessarily committed any crime themselves, much less a violent crime. Instead, the algorithm looks at factors such as “arrests, warrants, parole status, weapons and drug-related charges, acquaintances’ records, having been a victim of a shooting or having known a victim, prison records, open court cases, and victims’ social networks.” Police denied a public records request for the algorithm itself, foreshadowing another major problem with smart cities: algorithms make decisions that intimately affect people’s daily lives, but are completely opaque.

What isn’t opaque is that bias cannot be escaped simply by digitizing it.

Should we give up?

Making cities more livable, sustainable, and workable is clearly a laudable goal. But residing in a surveillance state run by biased algorithms is hardly livable. If smart cities are built without the goal of ensuring basic human rights, they will instead worsen quality of life for many.

Fortunately, there are other ways to improve urban environments, even within the smart cities framework. For example, “citizen co-creation” of better cities can be “grounded more in issues of equity and social inclusion.” Medellín, Colombia, has been a leader in this area. The city ‘s “favelas were reintegrated into the city not with smartphones but with publicly funded sports facilities and a cable car connecting them to the city.” The city also took on projects like enhancing infrastructure and “conduct[ing] workshops in low-income communities to provide access to free Wi-Fi and improve digital literacy.” That focus on the most under-served, along with the ability to see that technology isn’t always the best answer, have made Medellín successful.

It’s easy to look for a technological cure for the world’s most pressing problems. But in the case of livability in cities, we should learn to walk before we run. That means ensuring our cities have a baseline level of human rights for all.


Smart Cities: Wired for Injustice

Being Trans and Visible Every Day

I thought really hard about not publishing this post on my new personal website. I thought I should maybe keep this sort of “personal stuff” separate from my professional life. But let’s be honest: trans people are visible on special days. We are visible when we die. We are visible in settings where we are advocating for our own rights. But I’m a freedom of expression and human rights activist. I fight structural racism and unchecked surveillance. And I want you to know that we are everywhere, on every day. So I’m publishing this on my new website, which I will use for professional purposes. And I’m publishing it the day after TDOV, because there I am trans every day.

My life has changed completely since I came out as genderqueer almost two years ago. I always knew something was wrong, but I thought it was my social awkwardness, being mixed race but passing as white,  having too many opinions…the list goes on and on. The bottom line is that before coming out as genderqueer, I felt disgusting. I felt like a monster, and certainly unlovable. While being trans wasn’t the only source of those feelings, it’s easy to feel like that when your gender isn’t even a word in your language. It’s easy to feel like that when cis lesbian and gay folks are explicitly unwelcoming to you as a young adult. It’s easy to feel like that when gender nonconforming and trans people are the butt of jokes. 

For those of you who knew me before I came out, I want to be clear–I spent my 20s trying consciously to “be a woman,” and it was very painful. Every relationship I had, friendship, romantic, or family, was touched by that struggle. I was trying to be something I never was.

I only heard the word genderqueer maybe 3 or 4 years ago. It didn’t take me long to realize it describes me. It didn’t take me much longer after that to decide that I am in a position where coming out is safe enough for me. Today, it’s not only my name and the pronoun I ask people to use that have changed, it’s everything about my life. I relate to the world around me in a way I am proud of. I can even say I’m generally pretty happy.

I can’t say anything about being trans without mentioning that I have multiple privileges that have made it easier for me to come out, not least of all being a light-skinned in a country where being trans isn’t (exactly) illegal. Also, everyone’s story is different, and no detail of mine is part of some essential trans experience.

With all those caveats, I still think figuring out my gender identity was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I’m trans as fuck. Be confused. Enjoy it.

Being Trans and Visible Every Day

Want to Record The Cops? Know Your Rights

This post was originally published on the Electronic Frontier Foundation website on April 16, 2015 under a Creative Commons Attribution License. 

There are some very disturbing videos circulating the Internet right now, depicting the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of trained, armed men. Many of these videos even show individuals being shot in the back, or as they try to flee.

These are videos of police officers in America killing unarmed black men like Oscar Grant and Eric Garner. And, as the most recent case shows, without these recordings, much of America might not have any idea exactly how much of a problem this is.

Citizen videos of law enforcement encounters are more valuable than ever. And for those who are wondering—it is legal to record the police.

The police don’t always seem aware of this. There have been incidents across the country of police telling people to stop filming, and sometimes seizing their camera or smartphone, or even arresting them, when they don’t comply.

In the most recent citizen-filmed incident to gain widespread media attention, on April 4, white police officer Michael Slager shot and killed 50-year-old black man Walter Scott in the back as he ran away in North Charleston, South Carolina. Bystander Feiden Santana filmed the encounter, which started with a traffic stop. After Santana’s video surfaced, the officer was arrested and charged with murder. Santana said that he is scared of what might happen to him. He also considered deleting the video, and doing nothing with it. And Santana is not the only person who may be intimidated by the prospect of filming the police, with good reason.

That’s why, in addition to EFF Attorney Sophia Cope’s legal analysis highlighting some of the recent case law establishing the right to film police officers, we’re sharing some basic information cop watchers should know.

What Courts Have Said

Courts across the country have held that there is a First Amendment right to openly record the police. Courts have also held, however, that individuals cannot interfere with police operations, and that wiretapping statutes that prohibit secretly recording may apply to recording the police. But underlying these decisions is the understanding that recording the police is constitutionally protected.

Know Your Rights and Be Safe

While it has been established that individuals have the right to record the police, what happens on the street frequently does not match the law. Also, if you’re thinking about filming the police, it’s likely you’ll have more police encounters than you otherwise would.

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is a bar association that does police accountability work. The National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer program is focused on watching the police at protests. Cop Watch and CopBlock are loosely organized groups that have chapters across the country, and provide resources on filming the police everyday.

Here are the most essential things to keep in mind:

  • Stay calm and courteous, even though the situation may be stressful. Remember—if you get arrested or get into an altercation with the police, you won’t be able to keep filming them!
  • Be sure that you are not interfering with police operations, and stand at a safe distance from any encounter you film.
  • Your right to record audio surreptitiously of police carrying out their duties in public may vary from state to state. You should check your state law to know the fullest extent of your rights, but the lowest risk way to record is to hold your device in plain view of the officers.
  • Do not lie to police officers. If they ask whether you are recording, answer honestly.
  • If the police start interacting with you, treat the encounter as you would any encounter with law enforcement—in fact, you may want to be extra careful, since as the repeated incidents of police seizing cameras and smartphones demonstrate, it may make you more of a target.
  • If you are at a demonstration, police will often issue a dispersal order—in general, they will declare a protest an unlawful assembly and tell people to leave. Unless you are granted permission to stay, that order applies to you, too. If you do not comply, you should expect to be arrested.
  • While it is not legal for an officer to order you to move because you are recording, they may still order you to move. If you do not comply you could be arrested. If you do want to comply, consider complying with the smallest movement possible, and verbally confirming that you are complying with their orders. For example, if you are standing five feet from an officer, and they say “You need to move back,” you might want to consider calmly saying “yes, officer, I am moving back” while taking a few steps back.

Below are some helpful resources and tips related to interacting with and filming the police from these groups and EFF:

  • The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) “Know Your Rights” pamphlet (available in multiple languages) provides basic information you should know for interacting with the police.
  • The NLG Legal Observer Program training manual has tips for filming the police at protests, many of which are useful for filming any encounter.
  • Cop Watch has resources and examples here.
  • EFF’s Know Your Rights guide provides information on what you need to know if the police want to search your electronic devices.

Why Focus on Citizen Recording When Departments Are Implementing Bodycams? 

As the conversation about police accountability continues to take place across the country, body cameras are often proposed as a solution, and they are getting a lot of attention in the news right now. “Bodycam” recordings have made a difference in some cases. But many transparency and accountability advocates including EFF, have expressed reasonable doubts about their efficacy.  States are trying to grapple with the many privacy issues they raise, mostly by considering exempting the footage from public records act requests. And while “bodycams” may be a contentious subject, there’s little doubt that it is citizen footage of law enforcement encounters that has really fueled the current debate about police accountability.

Keep Taping

As North Charleston Pastor Nelson Rivers said: “If not for the video, we would still be following the narrative from the officer. If not for this video, the story would be entirely different.” Scott’s family agrees. After watching the video, his brother stated: “I think that if that man never showed the video we would not be at the point that we’re at right now.” And North Charleston Councilwoman Dorothy Williams had this to say: “I’m asking all the citizens of North Charleston to continue taping.”

You don’t have to live in North Charleston to know why that’s a good idea.

Disclosure: Dia Kayyali served as the Vice-President for the National Lawyers Guild SF Bay Area Chapter and on the NLG’s national board, and has been involved with the NLG legal observer program nationally for over five years.

Want to Record The Cops? Know Your Rights

How the NSA is Transforming Law Enforcement

This post was originally published on the Electronic Frontier Foundation website under a Creative Commons Attribution License. 

If you’ve been imagining NSA surveillance as something distant, with analysts sitting in remote data centers quietly analyzing metadata—stop now. NSA surveillance has become a part of day-to-day law enforcement fabric in the United States. The Snowden disclosures that were made public as part of Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide drive this point home, and they emphasize why we need real change to government surveillance, not minor reforms.

There are two key points necessary to understand the domestic aspect of NSA surveillance: the integral role of the FBI in helping the NSA spy on Americans, and the acceptance of usage of NSA material for domestic and traditional law enforcement purposes. These are contingent, of course, on the fact that the NSA’s procedures allow widespread targeting of Americans.

Much of the material published on May 13 expanded on the disturbing revelations that we’ve already seen, but there were some standout points: new information about the degree of spying on the U.N. and other foreign officials, documents demonstrating the economic espionage aspect of NSA surveillance, and some interesting technical details about NSA programs. Among those technical details, what was especially striking for those of us in the United States were the slides that described how the FBI enables NSA surveillance.

A series of slides demonstrated that the FBI essentially serves as an attack dog for the NSA, doing the NSA’s domestic dirty work. One slide, which was previously published, notes that for purposes of PRISM, relationships with communications providers are only through the FBI. (slide23.jpg). Another slide describes how the FBI and NSA partner to “address an unreliable and incomplete Facebook collection system.”  (slide81.jpg).

There are also a series of slides describing the FBI’s relationship with Microsoft. One notes that the NSA is now able to collect Microsoft Skydrive data as a “result of the FBI working for many months with Microsoft to get this tasking and collection solution established .” (slide27.jpg). The documents also show that the NSA, Department of Justice, and FBI collaborated to collect Skype data. (slide29.jpg). Similarly, after Microsoft enabled encrypted chat: “MS, working with the FBI, developed a surveillance capability to deal with the new SSL.” (slide30.jpg).

Clearly, the NSA would have a much more difficult—if not impossible—time collecting information without the FBI.

None of this should be surprising. It’s easy to forget that Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation—not the NSA—to apply for production of business records. Remember the Verizon order that jumpstarted the NSA surveillance conversation? That order was an application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by the FBI for production of Verizon’s business records to the NSA.

The national discourse since June 6, 2013, has been about NSA spying. But talking about NSA spying on its own doesn’t make sense. We need to be talking about the surveillance state as a whole.

And it’s not just the FBI that we should be concerned about. The NSA’s role in ordinary investigations is not new information. But every document that expands on the NSA’s involvement in anything domestic, and not national security related, should ring alarm bells for everyone in the United States. We know now that:

  • The NSA data is fed to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s “Special Operations Division.” The DEA in turn uses this information in ordinary investigations, while cloaking the source– even from judges and prosecutors.
  • The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorized the NSA to share unminimized data with the FBI, as well as the CIA, with the “Raw Take” order. Prior to this “agencies [had] to ‘minimize’ private information about Americans — deleting data that is irrelevant for intelligence purposes before providing it to others.”
  • Information sharing between the FBI, NSA, and CIA has been routinized through “software which would automatically gather a list of tasked PRISM selectors every two weeks to provide to the FBI and CIA.” (slide31.jpg). Similarly, the NSA sends “operational PRISM news and guidance to the FBI and CIA so that their analysts could task the PRISM system properly, be aware of outages and changes, and optimize their use of PRISM.”
  • And, most recently, we learned that the NSA partners with the DEA to record nearly all cell phone calls in the Bahamas– but not for national security purposes. This surveillance helps “to locate ‘international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers’—traditional law-enforcement concerns, but a far cry from derailing terror plots or intercepting weapons of mass destruction.” In fact, a 2004 memo discusses the NSA’s integral role in the war on drugs.

Everything we now know about the NSA paints a picture of an agency that has grown wildly outside the bounds of its purpose—to protect national security. The national security justifications for dragnet surveillance ring hollow. It’s time to take Congress and the President to task for this, and call for an end to the unchecked actions of our dangerous spy agencies­—the NSA and the FBI.

How the NSA is Transforming Law Enforcement