Advances in technology are giving police departments across the U.S. new methods to track suspects and potentially prevent crimes. But these systems also contribute to a significant rise in the surveillance of law-abiding citizens.

Law enforcement uses many new systems and platforms to keep tabs on various groups and individuals, and they generally don’t publicize these methods. However, lawsuits, public records and even police success stories have uncovered these tactics.

Five high-tech surveillance tools

Human rights and privacy advocates report a disturbing rise in high-tech police surveillance methods, saying they represent potential risks to free speech, privacy and due process. These methods include:

  • Facial recognition: Allows most police departments to use cameras in public areas to search for suspects. However, many regard the technology as unreliable, and several activists say it should be prohibited.
  • Drones: These airborne vehicles are used by hundreds of police departments to hunt for suspects or victims, map cities, investigate crime scenes and keep tabs on traffic.
  • Social media tracking: Law enforcement seeks to capitalize on the massive reach that Facebook, Instagram and other platforms offer, and the ability to search for suspects by name or track them through friends or family. Nearly 400 police departments admitted using this technology in 2016.
  • Video analytics: As in the case of facial recognition, this software uses artificial intelligence scanning video to identify people and tie objects to a suspect. While it’s effectiveness remains unclear, IBM withdrew its version from the market in 2019.
  • Stingrays: These devices impersonate cellphone towers, deceiving nearby phones to connect with them, helping police learn a person’s location and other unique information. They are used by local police departments, the FBI, IRS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

These surveillance techniques are accelerating

Human rights advocates say the use of these technologies has dramatically escalated since the death of George Floyd in May sparked an inferno of demonstrations across the country. Police have also reportedly examined cellphones of arrested protesters to get their personal information.

While some cities, such as San Francisco, have banned police from using facial recognition, the rules over these techniques aren’t abundantly clear, and few court decisions exist outlining how transparent police must be to disclose their surveillance methods.