Between the increasing capabilities of local and state police, the creep of federal law enforcement into domestic policing, the use of aerial surveillance such as spy planes and drones, and mounting cooperation between private technology companies and the government, it can be hard to understand and visualize what all this overlapping surveillance can mean for your daily life. We often think of these problems as siloed issues. Local police deploy automated license plate readers or acoustic gunshot detection. Federal authorities monitor you when you travel internationally.
But if you could take a cross-section of the average city block, you would see the ways that the built environment of surveillance—its physical presence in, over, and under our cities—makes this an entwined problem that must be combated through entwined solutions.
Thus, we decided to create a graphic to show how—from overhead to underground—these technologies and legal authorities overlap, how they disproportionately impact the lives of marginalized communities, and the tools we have at our disposal to halt or mitigate their harms.
Going from Top to Bottom:
1. Satellite Surveillance:
Satellite photography has been a reality since the 1950s, and at any given moment there are over 5,000 satellites in orbit over the Earth—some of which have advanced photographic capabilities. While many are intended for scientific purposes, some satellites are used for reconnaissance by intelligence agencies and militaries. There are certainly some satellites that may identify a building or a car from its roof, but it’s unlikely that we could ever reach the point where pictures taken from a satellite would be clear enough or could even be the correct angle to run through face recognition technology or through an automated license plate reader.
Satellites can also enable surveillance by allowing governments to intercept or listen in on data transmitted internationally.
2. Internet Traffic Surveillance
Government surveillance of internet traffic can happen in many ways. Through programs like PRISM and XKEYSCORE, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) can monitor emails as they move across the internet, browser and search history, and even keystrokes as they happen in real time. Much of this information can come directly from the internet and telecommunications companies that consumers use, through agreements between these companies and government agencies (like the one the NSA shares with AT&T) or through warrants or orders granted by a judge, including those that preside over the Foriegn Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).
Internet surveillance isn’t just the domain of the NSA and international intelligence organizations; local law enforcement are just as likely to approach big companies in an attempt to get information about how some people use the internet. In one 2020 case, police sent a search warrant to Google to see who had searched the address of an arson victim to try to identify a suspect. Using the IP addresses Google furnished of users who conducted that search, police identified a suspect and arrested him for the arson.
How can we protect our internet use? FISA reform is one big one. Part of the problem is also transparency: in many instances it’s hard to even know what is happening behind the veil of secrecy that shrouds the American surveillance system.
3. Cellular Communications (Tower) Surveillance
Cell phone towers receive information from our cell phones almost constantly, such as the device’s location, metadata like calls made and the duration of each call, and the content of unencrypted calls and text messages. This information, which is maintained by telecom companies, can be acquired by police and governments with a warrant. Using encrypted communication apps, such as Signal, or leaving your cell phone at home when attending political demonstrations are some ways to prevent this kind of surveillance.