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Privacy advocates concerned as New Mexico seeks further investment in mass surveillance

Privacy advocates concerned as New Mexico seeks further investment in mass surveillance

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, officials are seeking additional funding to support the city’s real-time crime center, which has seen a number of major surveillance tech upgrades since its inception over a decade ago. While the city credits the system for addressing heightened crime rates, critics worry that police may rely too heavily on the system and have voiced privacy concerns, according to The Hill.

Last week, Albuquerque police gave members of the media an inside look at the center, revealing how 10,000 cameras installed throughout the city deliver live feed surveillance for real-time review. Video feeds from roadways, local news stations and social media simultaneously aired on the room’s numerous monitors. The center can also compare video footage against databases of criminal records with facial recognition.

The video system, which includes license plate readers along the busiest roads, was credited for identifying Sergio Almanza, who killed a 7-year-old boy in a 2021 hit-and-run after running a red light. This year, Almanza was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison for vehicular manslaughter.

About 15 percent of Albuquerque is covered by audio devices called ShotSpotters, which are designed to detect gunfire and show the locations of detected gunshots with yellow markers on a city map. These detections are cross-referenced with live video and license plate data, to prepare officers for what they might be heading into, thereby potentially improving safety.

The ShotSpotter system was credited in solving a case involving the shooting deaths of four Muslim men, as well as a series of drive-by shootings at elected officials’ homes. In the first nine months of 2023, recorded weapons violations in Albuquerque increased by 21 percent, which the local police credit to the system.

Officials are seeking for state lawmakers to secure another $40 million on top of the $50 million invested over recent years, to give authorities access to more parts of the city and to facilitate data sharing between other agencies.

But critics worry the police may rely too heavily on the tech, which still leaves open the possibility for human error. AP obtained a confidential 19-page ShotSpotter operations document that showed how human employees managing the system can quickly overrule and reverse the algorithm’s decisions on whether a captured sound is a gunshot, fireworks, or something else.

The document guides employees to assess what is marked as likely gunfire through judgment calls such as whether the audio pattern looks like “a sideways Christmas tree” and if there is “100 percent certainty of gunfire in the reviewer’s mind.”

2021 data from the company shows that reversals happen in 10 percent of cases.

Critics also have major privacy concerns. For instance, in Albuquerque, officials amended an ordinance to retain data from the system for a longer period of time – for two weeks as opposed to one year.

Daniel Williams, policing policy advocate with the ACLU in New Mexico, says this is too long.

“Our tradition in this country, our values are that we don’t engage in surveillance of people or intrude into the lives of people by law enforcement in case they might one day commit a crime,” he said to The Hill.

“There’s a balance between the very real risks to the privacy of all of us in our community when this sort of mass surveillance is employed and the legitimate need to solve crimes and keep us safe,” he noted.

As the tech becomes more accessible to implement over time, stakeholders continue to weigh the value of public safety at the expense of privacy. Mexico has begun building a 20-story biometric surveillance hub on its shared border with the U.S., with plans to share data with Texas agencies. There were 100 real-time crime centers counted around the U.S. by the EFF as of November 2022.

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