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Commentary: We need protection from harmful surveillance technologies

Alejandro Ruizesparza, Progressive Perspectives on

Published in Op Eds

In December 2023, the Chicago Police Department quietly entered into a free six-month pilot for a database called CrimeTracer by SoundThinking, the company behind the controversial ShotSpotter technology. CrimeTracer is a police database and search engine, repackaging and sharing large pools of data across different agencies. The approval occurring without public oversight prevents a good-faith assessment of the hidden public costs large-scale databases can wreak, showcasing a larger pattern of U.S. cities’ rash tendency to adopt technology built on legacies of racist policing and state violence.

Critics have spent years naming the dangers of having ShotSpotter sensors in predominantly low-income communities of color, despite corporate secrecy over sensor locations. But now, a new analysis of leaked coordinate data confirms that these racialized patterns can be seen across the entirety of the United States.

Chicago played a role in expanding the breadth of digital surveillance across racial lines, and the city has a responsibility to prevent further technologically driven harm.

Chicago’s police superintendent and former Bureau of Counterterrorism chief has argued that investments into policing technology are necessary for crime reduction. But this is overly optimistic and ignores how policing technology adds new social problems without fixing the old. The digitalization of policing accelerates state and corporate interests, frequently undermining the well-being of already repressed people and justice movements under false notions of scientific objectivity.

Despite existing privacy protections at state and local levels, municipal forces like the Chicago Police Department and federal forces like the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) frequently leverage digital tools and databases to penetrate the lives of everyday people. Although Chicago is a sanctuary city, these measures have consistently failed to protect those targeted for deportation.

Under the Trump administration, ICE launched a surveillance-driven attack on sanctuary cities, including Chicago, under Operation Palladium. Data-sharing between federal and municipal agencies provided ICE with warrantless access to sources like the city’s error-ridden gang database. Today, ICE still bypasses the sanctuary ordinance to surveil, detain and displace Chicago immigrants to out-of-state jails while using new digital tools to expand its monitoring capabilities.

Chicago’s adoption of CrimeTracer is an example of the city failing its most at-risk residents. The tool, once called CopLinkX, has reputedly been used by ICE to get around sanctuary policies meant to shield noncitizen residents from ICE enforcers. It does this by sharing data that is used to justify deportations, arrests, raids and the removal of individuals who were not prosecuted in domestic criminal courts.

Chicago is already one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the world. Why is it that the needs of residents are consistently under-funded, but a department with a well-documented history of tolerating horrific abuse and retaining racist extremists is consistently given shiny new digital tools?

 

Surveillance expert Freddy Martinez, my colleague and co-director at Lucy Parsons Labs, has warned about the harms of data transfer loopholes allowing cops and federal agents to bypass the need for warrants. Closing these loopholes is a bare minimum step toward better data regulation to protect individual liberties. But we must also go further. In my organization’s federal lawsuit against the City of Chicago, we argue that the city knowingly deployed ShotSpotter technology along racial lines, further amplifying racist police violence in low-income communities of color.

To prevent cycles of racism, xenophobia and violence from digitizing and harming generations of our neighbors nationwide, our city must serve as a model of just digital practices. We must regulate the transmission of data between private and public sectors, disinvest from harmful technology and reorient its spending so it aligns with the needs of our most harmed communities.

Chicago’s ostensibly progressive Mayor Brandon Johnson took a good first step by announcing the ShotSpotter contract’s decommission in September — before adding on a two-month transition period. The city should follow through on its initial announcement to decommission in September, close its data loopholes and stop its wanton adoption of digital surveillance tech.

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Alejandro Ruizesparza is a co-director at Lucy Parsons Labs, a civil liberties non-profit. They are also a Public Voices Fellow on Technology in the Public Interest with The OpEd Project in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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