Unmasking Policing, Inc.

Governments are secretly collaborating with private companies. Here is why PI is concerned about surveillance outsourcing, and why together we urgently must expose them.

Neighbourhood turning into Policing, Inc.

  • The proliferation of both surveillance technologies and companies that develop or use them have provided governments with a plethora of opportunities to secretly collaborate with private actors and exploit us.
  • Surveillance outsourcing often seeks to exacerbate governments' already unnecessary intrusions upon our everyday lives and undermine our fundamental freedoms. It does so by blurring the lines between private and public spaces as well as by normalising surveillance.
  • At the same time, these collaborations provide companies with more opportunities to monetise our data.
  • PI questions whether private actors are able to adhere to strict transparency and due process standards. Entrusting companies with policing our communities ultimately means more abuse, discrimination and inequality, undermining democracy.
  • We need to expose collaborations between governments and companies that seek to turn us all and everything around us into surveillance officers.

Surveillance outsourcing 101: Welcome to Policing, Inc.

There's a new breed of surveillance company emerging. While the global surveillance industry continues to profit from the sale of "surveillance tech" to governments worldwide, this new breed of company actively work with governments by turning their products and services into surveillance tools. They end up carrying out policing functions traditionally entrusted to the state. They are radically transforming public spaces into arenas of privatised surveillance.

These firms are also undermining the protections which exist when surveillance is undertaken by authorities accountable to the public.

What is it?

Companies are invited, compelled, or even volunteer to team up with police and law enforcement agencies to install CCTV systems, facilitate smart cities, provide access to personal data or even carry out policing functions traditionally entrusted to the state.

Surveillance deals between law enforcement and private companies impose an unprecedented level of intrusion upon our everyday lives without any public debate. At the same time, these shady deals provide companies with more opportunities to exploit us for their profit.

We must hold them to account!

What is the problem?

A state where private companies and governments work together to spy on us will negatively affect our right to protest, our ability to freely criticise the government and express dissenting ideas.

These companies inspire governments with their data-driven visions of the future, free from dissent. As part of its “Safe-City” initiative, Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company has been reported to have helped intelligence officials in Uganda to curtail the ever growing civil dissent and peaceful assemblies, by rolling out surveillance systems that rely on the use of artificial intelligence systems and facial recognition.

In Serbia, Huawei engaged in a strategic partnership with the government and provided authorities with CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition. While government authorities refused to provide information about their dealings with Huawei, the latter reportedly published a case study on their website about the installation of cameras for video surveillance in Belgrade and cooperation with the Ministry of Interior of Serbia.

What do companies get out of this?

Governments are not the only ones benefiting from these surveillance partnerships.

In September 2019, it was reported that the UK police was collaborating with Amazon to hand out Ring video doorbells for free. Specifically, nearly half of the 33 police forces that responded to Freedom of Information requests admitted working with Amazon Ring to offer discount vouchers to people purchasing the doorbells.

Amazon has established similar privacy-threatening collaborations with police forces in the United States, where it was reported that Ring is offering training to the police on how to obtain Ring doorbell users’ consent when requesting their footage. This is highly problematic as it seeks to erode fundamental due process guarantees.

In April 2020, Palantir, the US-based data-mining company, was reported to be involved in a Covid-19 data project with the UK National Health Service (NHS). Together with four other organisations, PI sent the company 10 questions about their work on the project to seek clarification. While Palantir got back to us offering some assurances, they failed to clarify the extent of this partnership and what protections exist.

What does this mean for our rights?

Surveillance outsourcing also endorses the existence of private surveillance networks, and distorts long-established societal promises of privacy and perceptions of authority.

Let’s think of how we feel when we ride our bike down a street and suddenly a police car appears behind us. We feel observed, we feel the need to control our behaviour although we have not done anything wrong.

In October 2019, it was revealed that a property developer was using facial recognition software around the King’s Cross site for two years from 2016 without any apparent central oversight from either the Metropolitan police or the office of the mayor. Despite its initial claims, the Metropolitan Police later admitted that images of seven people were passed on by local police for use in the system in an agreement that was reportedly struck in secret, triggering an investigation by the UK regulator for data protection, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

What are we doing?

What most of the partnerships mentioned above have in common is a lack of transparency underpinning them.

The last thing we want, by entrusting companies with these intrusive tools, is creating one more reality full of exploitation and abuse. And, similar to governments failing to adhere to their transparency and accountability obligations, companies are often shielding behind confidentiality and trade secret exceptions to refuse to provide us with information about their data practices, for example.

Laws exist to help us hold governments and companies to account, and they also provide us with important rights to expose unlawful practices and advance public scrutiny. Many of these reports came to light because of journalists and activists relying on transparency legal frameworks.

We hope that you will find our freedom of information and data protection resources useful and that you will be able to unmask any surveillance collaboration that seek to exploit our freedoms under the cloak of defending them. While we are unable to provide any legal support or take on individual cases, we are always happy to hear of challenges and victories around the globe.

These examples are just the beginning.