Jul 24, 2019

Rise of the digital neighborhood watch

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Residents of major American cities are constantly watched by ubiquitous cameras, mushrooming license plate readers and a battery of new smart city sensors.

But, but, but: It's not just the government keeping tabs. An explosion of private surveillance — set up by businesses, landlords and neighbors — is being driven by increasingly cheap but powerful technology. And what these observers see could make its way back to law enforcement.

Big picture: Old-school video cameras have long watched over stores and gas stations. Now, a new wave of technology, once too expensive and complex to be used by anyone but the police, is making its way into mom-and-pop shops, front porches and residential streets.

  • Video cameras that flag unusual movements and recognize faces are being stuffed into popular "smart" doorbells that constantly send footage to the cloud.
  • AI-powered "video analytics" can identify specific actions like smoking, and search thousands of hours of archived footage for one person. It's popping up in public schools, like in Broward County, Fla., which includes Parkland.
  • License-plate readers are now guarding the entrances of wealthy neighborhoods, tracking every vehicle that passes and automatically flagging blacklisted cars.

"We're seeing a growing adoption of home security technology as a part of a digital neighborhood watch," says Mana Azarmi, policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "These technologies can be abused by stalkers, criminals and suspicious spouses."

Driving the news: At least 10 neighborhood homeowner's associations in the Denver area have bought license-plate readers to monitor every car coming in and out, reports Elise Schmelzer for the Denver Post. The cameras also record the faces of passersby.

  • The technology, which now costs only a couple hundred bucks to set up, is also being taken up by landlords that rent to low-income communities — often to police their own tenants.
  • One security company uses 475 cameras to watch over hundreds of properties, flagging guest-policy violations, parking lot collisions and illegal dumping, reports Josh Kaplan for Slate.

The data that private security systems gather are often open for law enforcement to dip into, potentially allowing police to get around restrictions on government surveillance that don't apply to private citizens, privacy experts say.

  • "If the only regulation on police is on what they can do with their own equipment and their own license-plate technology, it becomes trivial to avoid that," says Nathan Freed Wessler, an ACLU staff attorney.
  • In that case, Wessler says, police "have access to an incredible compendium of Americans' movements across time and space, going back years, potentially."
  • Some departments, savvy to this symbiotic arrangement, subsidize the price of video cameras in return for access to residents' surveillance archives.

What's next: Some states, including New Hampshire and Utah, have passed laws limiting police access to private plate-scan databases. But curbing purely private surveillance is difficult, legal experts tell Axios, because the First Amendment protects photography in public places.

Go deeper: Private license-plate readers help police and lenders target the poor (The Atlantic)

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Baltimore wrestles with aerial surveillance

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With a surge of violent crime plaguing the streets of Baltimore, some residents whose lives have been upended by murder are pushing for a drastic measure: citywide surveillance.

Why it matters: Americans have historically valued privacy over security and generally reject the idea of being monitored by anyone, especially law enforcement.

  • But record-setting homicide rates in Baltimore — not to mention national attention on the city's problems following President Trump's recent Twitter insults — may test that mindset.
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Kids at the center of facial recognition

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facial recognition is going everywhere far faster than expected — including creeping into private and public spaces as a means to keep tabs on children.

Why it matters: The people with the power to rein in this tech are the same ones who will most enjoy its benefits — while those who face its adverse effects, especially people of color and low-income communities, will be largely powerless to make anything change.

Go deeperArrowAug 2, 2019

How Amazon will take over your house

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In recent years, Amazon has made a series of investments, acquisitions and R&D moves in the smart home industry. None seemed particularly consequential on its own, but with a real estate deal last week, Amazon appears to have captured first-mover advantage in one of the most important new industries on the planet.

Why it matters: With the deals, Amazon has taken a pioneering lead in what has come to be called "surveillance capitalism," which includes some of the biggest businesses of the future, like 5G, autonomous vehicles and smart cities. Now, the behemoth, with its edge in this new economy, is positioned to explode its revenue.

Go deeperArrowAug 1, 2019