Conspiracy theorists’ worst fears were confirmed last month when the New York Post reported that the NYPD now maintains an undisclosed number of unmarked, military-grade vans with X-ray radiation, capable of scanning the public and looking through building and vehicle walls.
This technology, called the “Z Backscatter” van, was used by the military in Afghanistan and costs somewhere between $729,000 and $825,000.
However, there’s know way we can know for sure what these futuristic vans are capable of, including potential health impacts due to radiation exposure, because the NYPD refuses to talk about them.
“I will not talk about anything at all about this,” said Police Commissioner Bill Bratton back in October. “
The devices we have, the vehicles if you will, are all used lawfully and if the ACLU and others don’t think that’s the case, we’ll see them in court — where they’ll lose!”
The NYPD’s insistence on complete, blanketing secrecy is part of a growing trend within the surveillance state that civil rights advocates have been fighting for decades.
The vans, among other new gadgets, bring up concerns of privacy and health that have become more widespread as we’ve watched technologies trickle out of war zones and into our neighborhoods.
The Backscatter vans are only the beginning. Police departments around the nation have deployed a whole host of new devices, from laser light guns to facial recognition scanners. Here’s what’s being used by police right now:
1. Pain Ray Cannon
What began in the early days of the Bush Administration as a way to quell Iraq war-era uprisings could soon end up at local police departments.
The pain ray cannon, or “Active Denial System,” (ADS) as the police call it, is the latest form of military-grade crowd control. The weapon uses microwave beams to heat up the water and fat molecules in a person’s skin, effectively heating the person up until they run away.
Though “less-than-lethal,” its effects are anything but enjoyable. According to people who have had the pain ray tested on them, “it feels like someone opened an invisible door to a blast furnace in front of them, or that their skin was being scorched all over instantly.
The ray’s effects is said to illicit an almost instant response, and that response is to get the hell away from the thing as fast as possible.”
During protest situations, an ADS could be swept across large groups of people at a closer range than originally intended. The systems could be used to deter a crowd from a single area or to incapacitate drivers.
Even beyond the threat to collective action is the potential for this weapon to be used as a torture device. If left unchecked, the pain ray cannon could allow for some pretty repulsive human rights violations.
2. LRAD Sound Cannon
Instead of tear gas and batons, departments have taken to using Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs), to transmit a super-loud high-pitched scream into crowds. The sound is literally too painful to be around and is intended to “shape the behavior of potential threats”.
LRADs have been seen in use more frequently in the past year or so, as tensions rise around police killings of African-Americans. Departments from New York City to Toronto to Ferguson, Missouri are using LRADs indiscriminately on protesters, causing excruciating pain to anyone within range.
After the NYPD implemented one of its sound cannons last December against protesters advocating justice for the killing of Eric Garner, lawyers representing some of those protesters joined many in raising concerns about the use of this technology.
“This is not a precision tool,” said Gideon Oliver, one of the lawyers who wrote to Commissioner Bratton regarding the incident. “This is an area-of-effect weapon. When the police use it, it’s not as if they’re just targeting one person. It’s indiscriminate like teargas.”
3. “Dazzler” Laser Gun
Another increasingly popular gadget for crowd control is the “dazzler” lazer gun. The weapon works by shooting rays of laser light, which disorient anyone approaching the area.
According to Lindsey J. Bertomen, a retired police officer, criminal justice professor and weapons reviewer for PoliceOne, and reported by GQ, “you can’t look directly at it or you become extremely disoriented.
If the timing is done correctly you lose balance and fall off your feet. Even the person using it has to be careful and not look directly at it either.”
Eye damage with the dazzler is so common that the U.S. military was prompted to review its use of the laser devices in 2009, after cases of temporary eye damage in some soldiers and at least two cases of permanent eye damage.
4. Facial Recognition Software
With secrecy and deception clouding any conversation about the militarized surveillance state, we can only assume that we are being recorded almost all the time, at least in urban areas. The market has more than tripled since 2008, with cameras being used more invasively every day.
Just last year the Boston Police Department was caught testing out its facial recognition technology on attendees of Boston Calling music festival without their knowledge. Data on each individual’s build, clothes and skin color was captured on thousands of people.
The Albuquerque Police Department has already tried out FBI and private versions of facial recognition software on a handful of cases. Right now they are taking surveillance images of crimes and running them through their database of booking photos from previous arrests.
The ACLU claims departments are also attempting to gain access to private security cameras in order to expand their surveillance reach without having to install new cameras of their own.
5. Drones Equipped with High-Resolution Cameras
Even more aggressive than thousands of surveillance cameras on every street corner is police reconnaissance from the sky.
Several police departments have deployed aircrafts with high-resolution cameras and software that can identify and track people over long distances. FBI versions of these planes include technology that may be able to capture private data from cellphones as they track someone, according to the Associated Press.
Concerns have been raised regarding use of this technology for police surveillance, including protection from “unreasonable search and seizure.”
Douglas Wood, a lawyer at the Reed Smith Law Firm who edited a report on drone law titled “Crowded Skies” earlier this year, says the majority of proposed legislation on the topic is related to privacy and trespassing.
The U.S. Department of Justice released its own guidelines on the matter in May, barring federal law enforcement agencies from using drones to “monitor activity protected by the First Amendment”, such as peaceful protests.
6. Predictive Policing
Cops now have software programs that “use algorithms to analyze surveillance, GPS coordinates, and crime data to pinpoint specific areas where, and specific people who, might at some point commit a crime.”
The software gathers and stores information about crimes, including locations and known associations between people who have committed past crimes, analyzes this information, and then produces a list of people who might commit a crime in the future.
For example, if you have a criminal record, live in an area with high crime rates and post on social media about smoking marijuana, your name could be spit out by the software and police could show up at your door.
Chicago police have been using their “heat list,” which is comprised of the people in the city supposedly most likely to be involved in a crime based on their data, to conduct “preventative visits” to the mostly African-American male list.
Critics of this “predictive policing,” now employed by over 70 percent of police departments, argue the technology lends itself to racial profiling and invasions of privacy. Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the Criminal Law Reform Project for the ACLU, says the policies tend to legitimize police profiling of racial minorities.
“Our concern is guilt by association,” Mr. Edwards said. “Because you live in a certain neighborhood or hang out with certain people, we are now going to be suspicious of you and treat you differently, not because you have committed a crime or because we have information that allows us to arrest you, but because our predictive tool shows us you might commit a crime at some point in the future.
See also: The police forces of the future
These technologies are only as aggressive as those that use them, but if the past year in police militarization has given us any clues, police violation of privacy and human rights will only become more extensive.
The usual policy is to not only adopt new, military-grade technology without public consent, regardless of moral implications, but also to do so in complete secrecy and to deny the true nature of this technology even after the public objects.
After 15 years of war-time technologies increasingly finding their way onto the streets of America, this pattern throughout police departments begs the questions, “Where will the invasions of privacy end?” and “What could possibly be next?”