The Quiet Rise of Real-Time Crime Centers

Most evidence for RTCC effectiveness, however, is anecdotal, and there is a real lack of studies into how effective they really are. In Detroit, a National Institute of Justice study concluded that Project Green Light—a part of the Detroit Police Department RTCC that established cameras at more than 550 locations, including schools, churches, private businesses, and health centers—helped decrease property violence in some areas but did nothing to prevent violent and other crimes. But police departments argue they do work.

Few people know RTCCs even exist, let alone the extent of the surveillance they entail, so they can receive little public scrutiny and often operate without much oversight. There have long been concerns around how surveillance technologies could affect First and Fourth Amendment rights in the US, but Beryl Lipton, an investigative researcher at the EFF, says RTCCs “hyper-charge” these worries by collating all this data in one place.

“It’s perpetuating this mass collection of people’s private information from a whole bunch of different video streams,” Lipton says. “They’re really lowering the bar on the ways police can access that information … When there are these types of large databases without proper audit and oversight mechanisms, law enforcement officials and individuals can use them for their own purposes, which can be very scary.”

Regulations around the storage and usage of this data are patchy at best. For example, RTCC-collected data may be shared across jurisdictions because third parties contracted for the hardware or software will also collect data and share it, Lipton says. “Some of these companies will, in good faith, delete data in accordance with retention schedules, but we’ve seen them not do that,” she says. “With large databases like license plate reader databases, that information is sometimes shared without police departments realizing it and in violation of jurisdictional rules.”

While companies will argue this data is being stored securely, this is no guarantee. In 2020, hackers stole internal memos, financial records, and more from over 200 local, state, and federal agencies from web development firm Netsential, which provided data storage for fusion centers across the US. The trove of leaked data later became known as #BlueLeaks.

“There are real concerns around having this amount of information stored somewhere,” says Lipton, “I have no reason to believe these are somehow more secure systems than we have in other situations. And we know that those get breached all the time, law enforcement agencies in this country get hacked all the time.”

Lipton’s biggest worry is that this ability to follow people remotely and share that data across state lines could instead be used to target people involved in protests and political organizing, which has already happened, or those accessing reproductive health care. “Those issues become compounded because there’s the frightening ‘real time’ element to it,” she says. “That means that if you leave your house, there’s a very good chance that law enforcement could jump into a feed that is just following you around.”


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