What kinds of surveillance equipment do Arizona police have?

By: - July 22, 2020 2:56 pm

Royalty free image via Pixabay

In the wake of protests across the country against police violence, a digital privacy nonprofit evaluated what technology law enforcement agencies across the country are able to use to track and surveil protesters. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently released its research on what types of surveillance equipment law enforcement across the country has available to them. 

In the Grand Canyon State, drones and partnerships with companies like Ring are the most prevalent.

Ring, which is owned by Amazon, offers “smart” doorbells which have cameras, microphones and other on-board equipment that allows users to monitor who comes to their door but law enforcement partnerships with the company have begun to come into question. 

Arizona Mirror reported in 2019 that a dozen Valley police departments were partnered with Ring, but only the Scottsdale Police Department provided its policies for the partnership. 

Scottsdale’s agreement with the company includes a confidentiality clause stating that “the Parties shall not disclose the terms of this program or any information that is designated as confidential.” 

The EFF research shows that a total of 23 law enforcement agencies in Arizona have partnered with Ring. Smaller cities like Eloy, Winslow and Casa Grande have jumped in on the partnership, which allows police to request video recorded by the doorbells or the systems attached to them.

The partnerships let police request the video recorded by homeowners’ cameras within a specific time and area. Law enforcement agencies don’t receive ongoing or live-video access, and homeowners can decline the requests, which Ring sends via email thanking them for “making your neighborhood a safer place.”

Roughly 400 police agencies across the country have partnered with the company, which is dubbing the system the “new neighborhood watch.” 

Ring users already consent to the company giving recorded video to law enforcement or third parties when the company deems it necessary, per the terms of service for the “smart” doorbells. Footage deleted by users can also be obtained by Ring in order to comply with its legal obligations. 

Drone use is also on the rise in Arizona. 

As previously reported by the Mirror, nine different agencies in Maricopa County have drones at their disposal, but across the state there are plenty more. EFF found 21 agencies in total with drones, including the Arizona Department of Corrections, the Oro Valley Police Department and the Pinal County Attorney’s Office. 

Only a few agencies have provided the Mirror their guidelines on the use of drones, and public records requests for policy guidelines for most agencies are still outstanding. 

The drones owned by law enforcement in Arizona, for the most part, are ones that some consumers can also own, likely with some enhancements

But police have much more powerful tools at their disposal than drones and access to videos recorded by doorbells. 

Four agencies have cell site simulators, also commonly referred to as Stingrays. The device is manufactured by the Harris Corporation, a multi-billion dollar defense contractor that has fought to keep information about the device secret

The device acts as a cell tower and will trick a target cell phone to go to it instead of a normal cell tower so that it can receive the phone’s international mobile subscriber identity, also known as its IMSI. The devices allow for law enforcement to track a target, and more advanced versions of the device even see messages sent by the person.

The Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Tucson Police Departments all have cell site simulators, though it is uncertain which version of the device they have. Tempe Police Department wanted to upgrade its device in 2018 and Police Chief Sylvia Moir claimed earlier this year that the agency did not have one. Police departments in the past have had to sign non-disclosure agreements to use the devices. 

Another powerful piece of technology used by several agencies is automated license plate readers. 

Ten agencies in the state have the technology, though there are few rules on how the technology is used in Arizona. 

Arizona police agencies gather & share license plate data, but few ensure rules are being followed

Automated license plate readers, or ALPRs, scan license plates of nearby cars, capturing images not only of the license plate number, but also recording where the vehicle is located and the time of day, among other things. 

The Quartzsite Police Department, which oversees a town of roughly 3,700 that is a stop for many driving from Phoenix to Southern California, has a patrol vehicle outfitted with ALPR.

ALPRs can gather thousands of records a second. Some police departments, like Chandler’s, have trained their officers to “grid” neighborhoods in order to scan every vehicle on public streets or in driveways. 

Many agencies also do not audit the data that is collected. 

Tempe Police Department does, but last completed an audit In 2015. The audit found 120 queries that didn’t have a required identifying number, but rather “generic identifying information such as the type of crime being investigated or type of warrant.” Three quarters of those queries were the result of six employees, one of whom was responsible for 61 of them.

Facial recognition technology used by Arizona law enforcement is more of an unknown. 

The Arizona Department of Transportation retains a facial recognition database and responds to requests from law enforcement agencies, both in Arizona and from other states. 

ADOT has maintained that it limits access to the database to federal agencies, despite doing so in the past. 

Other agencies in the state, including the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, have also used facial recognition technology in the past, but have given little information on how it has been used.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.