CONCORD — As police gain access to increasingly advanced surveillance tools, researchers are constructing a nationwide, open-source database of technology to help level the playing field between the companies that sell equipment to departments and the citizens who pay for it.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Atlas of Surveillance uses public information and an army of student journalists to document the tools that local law enforcement use and the spread of equipment like facial recognition technology and drones.
The database contains 16 entries for all of New Hampshire. There are fewer entries in part because the state’s police are spread across many small towns instead of large metropolitan police departments that tend to generate more public scrutiny and reporting.
New Hampshire departments use three of the most common technologies found in the database: body-worn cameras, drones and license plate readers. The City of Lebanon maintains a camera registry, where private citizens with cameras like the Amazon Ring can sign up to add their cameras to a larger system of surveillance.
The database also includes New Hampshire’s Information Analysis Center in Concord, one of the country’s 79 fusion center sites. At fusion centers, where a variety of surveillance technologies can be used in one place, local and state law enforcement gather and analyze intelligence with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
An effort in neighboring Maine to close down its own fusion center failed in the state Senate last summer after passing in the House. A whistleblower had accused the center of illegally surveilling gun buyers, environmental protestors and employees at a Israel-Palestine peace building camp.
Dave Maass, the director of investigations at Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the Atlas of Surveillance matters because a power imbalance exists between the companies that market this technology to law enforcement and the people affected by how those technologies shape policing, even in subtle or unintentional ways.
“What we find in the country is that there is often this very cozy relationship between surveillance vendors and police officers,” Maass said. Vendors come to law enforcement conferences and try to sell departments on their miracle products, pitches that regular citizens don’t get to witness.
“A lot of decisions are being made about surveillance at closed-door meetings without input from the community about what’s acceptable and what’s needed for the community,” he said.
In some extreme cases, the public doesn’t get to know what it’s paying for.
One form of technology that doesn’t appear in the database is the “DEU Communications” equipment that cost Concord taxpayers $5,200 this year.
The business services budget line item also appeared in fiscal year 2021, as well as the budget from fiscal year 2020, when it cost $5,100 and was called “covert communications equipment.” The technology’s disclosure was the subject of a Supreme Court case the Monitor and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire brought against the City of Concord in 2019.
In an opinion issued on Dec. 7, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that the city could keep the vendor’s name and the nature of its service secret, even from the ACLU-NH attorneys arguing the case.
Although the city will not reveal what the technology is, Maass’ research indicates that it is likely a mobile phone service provided by Motorola-owned company Callyo, pronounced Call-ee-yo.
Callyo’s investigative products have a range of uses, including allowing law enforcement to mask phone numbers and record communications between victims and suspects. More than 30 U.S. patents associated with the company have names like “controlled recorded 3-way calling” and “virtual numbers for intelligence operations.”
“Using the virtual number, the operator may setup a controlled call between a victim and a baddie,” one patent describes.
In its promotional materials, Callyo says its products help law enforcement protect the most vulnerable people harmed by crimes, like victims of human trafficking and child pornography.
Concord said revealing the name of the vendor or the type of technology could potentially put police officers’ lives at risk. Yet, other departments openly disclose to the public how they use similar equipment and why.
Concord Police Chief Brad Osgood declined to confirm if the police department used Callyo’s services.
“I’m not going to tell you whether that’s the product,” Osgood said.
Many departments that use Callyo do not keep it secret.
In fact, hundreds of other law enforcement departments contract with Callyo, including police departments in Davie, Florida; Richmond, California; and Seattle, Washington.
Under a 2017 city ordinance, the Seattle Police Department is required to publicly explain how it uses surveillance tools like this one that have a “high privacy risk.”
In 2021, the department released a public surveillance impact report regarding Callyo’s products.
“The technology can record all calls made to/from the masked phone, covertly record audio, as well as GPS locate the phone of a caller,” the department explained. “When Seattle Police Department utilizes Callyo to record conversations, the technology is used only with search warrant.”
When installed on an officer’s phone, Callyo’s mobile service can mask a phone number assigned to an existing phone and display a different local number while making calls, the report said.
When asked about why other police departments like Seattle might treat public disclosure of information about Callyo differently, Osgood said, “I don’t have any knowledge of what other departments do with products of this sort.”
In 2020, the City of Concord spent about $360 in filing fees and transcription costs related to the case. At the end of December, the city said it had kept no record of how much staff time had been used to keep the contract secret and by law, it did not have to create a record to provide that information.
The Atlas of Surveillance began in 2018 as a collaboration between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and The Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. Designed to allow students and other volunteers to take on discrete, independent tasks, the database demonstrates how crowdsourcing can be used to gather large quantities of information.
Maass said the database now has more than 8,000 individual data points pulled from a variety of public sources.
“The three methods that go into the Atlas of Surveillance are three journalistic methods,” Maass said. “One is crowdsourcing, working with large groups of people to pull together information. Two would be data journalism, acquiring datasets and converting them into maps. And three would be public records requests.”
Since the database relies on publicly available information, it offers only an incomplete picture of what technology police use nationwide.
“If there’s not a reporter writing stories about it, we’re not going to find information about it. If there’s not a government website where they’re posting meeting agendas, we’re not going to find it,” Maass said.
However, the database already provides important information for researchers, journalists and citizens concerned about surveillance in their communities.
“It’s the largest of its kind right now,” he said.