For 15 years, Americans have been living in a constant state of "wartime" without any of the obvious signs of war. There is no draft. The public has in no way been mobilized. The fighting has all taken place in battle zones thousands of miles from the United States. Despite a rising homegrown fear of Islamic terrorism, an American in the continental U.S. faces greater danger from a toddler wielding a loaded gun. And yet, in ways often hard to chart, America's endless wars -- Barack Obama is now slated to preside over the longest war presidency in our history -- have quietly come home. You can see them reflected in the strengthening powers and prominence of the national security state, in those Pentagon spy drones now flying patrols over "the homeland," and, among other things, in the militarization of police departments nationwide.
Perhaps nowhere in these years, in fact, have America's wars come home more fiercely or embedded themselves more deeply than in those police forces. It's not just the multiplying SWAT teams -- the police equivalent of Special Operations forces, often filled with ex-special ops types and other veterans from this country's Iraqi and Afghan battlefields -- or the weaponry fed by the Pentagon to police departments, also from the battlefields of the Greater Middle East, including mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, automatic and semi-automatic rifles, and even grenade launchers. It's also, as Jay Stanley and TomDispatch regular Matthew Harwood, both of the American Civil Liberties Union, suggest today, intrusive new forms of technology, developed by or in conjunction with the Pentagon for battlefield use, that are coming to your neighborhood. So welcome to the war zone, America. Tom
Can't you see the writing on the touchscreen? A techno-utopia is upon us. We've gone from smartphones at the turn of the twenty-first century to smart fridges and smart cars. The revolutionary changes to our everyday life will no doubt keep barreling along. By 2018, so predicts Gartner, an information technology research and advisory company, more than three million employees will work for "robo-bosses" and soon enough we -- or at least the wealthiest among us -- will be shopping in fully automated supermarkets and sleeping in robotic hotels.
With all this techno-triumphalism permeating our digitally saturated world, it's hardly surprising that law enforcement would look to technology -- "smart policing," anyone? -- to help reestablish public trust after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the long list of other unarmed black men killed by cops in Anytown, USA. The idea that technology has a decisive role to play in improving policing was, in fact, a central plank of President Obama's policing reform task force.
In its report, released last May, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing emphasized the crucial role of technology in promoting better law enforcement, highlighting the use of police body cameras in creating greater openness. "Implementing new technologies," it claimed, "can give police departments an opportunity to fully engage and educate communities in a dialogue about their expectations for transparency, accountability, and privacy."
Indeed, the report emphasized ways in which the police could engage communities, work collaboratively, and practice transparency in the use of those new technologies. Perhaps it won't shock you to learn, however, that the on-the-ground reality of twenty-first-century policing looks nothing like what the task force was promoting. Police departments nationwide have been adopting powerful new technologies that are remarkably capable of intruding on people's privacy, and much of the time these are being deployed in secret, without public notice or discussion, let alone permission.
And while the task force's report says all the right things, a little digging reveals that the feds not only aren't putting the brakes on improper police use of technology, but are encouraging it -- even subsidizing the misuse of the very technology the task force believes will keep cops honest. To put it bluntly, a techno-utopia isn't remotely on the horizon, but its flipside may be.
Getting Stung and Not Even Knowing It
Shemar Taylor was charged with robbing a pizza delivery driver at gunpoint. The police got a warrant to search his home and arrested him after learning that the cell phone used to order the pizza was located in his house. How the police tracked down the location of that cell phone is what Taylor's attorney wanted to know.
The Baltimore police detective called to the stand in Taylor's trial was evasive. "There's equipment we would use that I'm not going to discuss," he said. When Judge Barry Williams ordered him to discuss it, he still refused, insisting that his department had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI.
"You don't have a nondisclosure agreement with the court," replied the judge, threatening to hold the detective in contempt if he did not answer. And yet he refused again. In the end, rather than reveal the technology that had located Taylor's cell phone to the court, prosecutors decided to withdraw the evidence, jeopardizing their case.
And don't imagine that this courtroom scene was unique or even out of the ordinary these days. In fact, it was just one sign of a striking nationwide attempt to keep an invasive, constitutionally questionable technology from being scrutinized, whether by courts or communities.
The technology at issue is known as a "Stingray," a brand name for what's generically called a cell site simulator or IMSI catcher. By mimicking a cell phone tower, this device, developed for overseas battlefields, gets nearby cell phones to connect to it. It operates a bit like the children's game Marco Polo. "Marco," the cell-site simulator shouts out and every cell phone on that network in the vicinity replies, "Polo, and here's my ID!"
Thanks to this call-and-response process, the Stingray knows both what cell phones are in the area and where they are. In other words, it gathers information not only about a specific suspect, but any bystanders in the area as well. While the police may indeed use this technology to pinpoint a suspect's location, by casting such a wide net there is also the potential for many kinds of constitutional abuses -- for instance, sweeping up the identities of every person attending a demonstration or a political meeting. Some Stingrays are capable of collecting not only cell phone ID numbers but also numbers those phones have dialed and even phone conversations. In other words, the Stingray is a technology that potentially opens the door for law enforcement to sweep up information that not so long ago wouldn't have been available to them.