Privacy advocates are concerned as New Mexico seeks additional investment in mass surveillance

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, authorities are seeking additional funding to support the city’s real-time crime center, which has undergone a number of major surveillance technology upgrades since its inception more than a decade ago. While the city credits the system with addressing increased crime rates, critics worry that police may rely too heavily on the system and have raised 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 provide live surveillance for real-time review. Video feeds from roads, local news stations and social media are simulcast on the room’s multiple monitors. The center can also compare video footage to criminal records databases with facial recognition.

The video system, which includes license plate readers on the busiest roads, was credited with identifying Sergio Almanza, who killed a 7-year-old boy in a 2021 hit-and-run after he ran 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 display the location of detected gunshots with yellow markers on a city map. These detections are matched with live video and license plate data to prepare officers for what they might be headed for, potentially improving safety.

The ShotSpotter system was credited with solving a case involving the deaths of four Muslims, as well as a series of shootings at the homes of elected officials. In the first nine months of 2023, reported gun violations in Albuquerque rose 21 percent, which local police attributed to the system.

Officials are pushing state lawmakers to provide another $40 million on top of the $50 million invested in recent years to give authorities access to more parts of the city and make it easier to share data between other agencies.

But critics worry that police may rely too heavily on the technology, which still leaves open the possibility of human error. The AP obtained a confidential 19-page document on ShotSpotter’s operations that shows how human employees running the system can quickly override and reverse the algorithm’s decisions about whether a picked-up sound is a gunshot, fireworks or something else.

The document guides officials to judge what is flagged as a probable gunfire through judgment, such as whether the audio pattern looks like a “sideways Christmas tree” and whether there is “100 percent certainty of a gunfire in the examiner’s mind.”

The company’s data for 2021 shows that reversals occur 10 percent of the time.

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

Daniel Williams, police policy advocate for the ACLU of New Mexico, says that’s too long.

“Our tradition in this country, our values, is that we don’t engage in surveillance of people or interference in people’s lives by law enforcement in case one day they might commit a crime,” he told The hill.

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

As technology becomes more accessible to implement over time, stakeholders continue to weigh the value of public safety over privacy. Mexico has begun construction of a 20-story biometric surveillance center on its shared border with the US, with plans to share data with agencies in Texas. There were 100 real-time crime centers counted in the US by EFF as of November 2022.

Article topics

ACLU | biometrics | video surveillance | facial recognition | law enforcement | police | video surveillance

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