The advanced surveillance technologies now used by law enforcement across the country have the ability to solve crimes and help people in ways that simply weren’t possible just a few years ago.

They also have the potential to upend privacy as we know it, perhaps before most people even understand what has changed.

Transparency, oversight and accountability are key to making sure these powerful technologies, many designed with the so-called War on Terror in mind, are deployed responsibly in our communities.

In Maine, however, police say they don’t even have to tell us whether they are using invasive technologies such as facial recognition or cell site simulators, much less how they guard against misuse.

Despite evidence that Maine State Police has partnered in the past with the FBI to develop facial recognition technology, the agency refused to answer any questions on the matter from Maine Sunday Telegram staff writer Randy Billings. In doing so, they cited a provision in Maine law that allows law enforcement to conceal investigative techniques. It’s a provision that only one other state has, and police here are using perhaps the most broad interpretation possible.

Billings’ Feb. 9 story detailed the stonewalling from state police, as well as the troubling nationwide use of digital surveillance, getting the attention of lawmakers. Only then did Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck issue a statement acknowledging the use of facial recognition scans as part of some criminal investigations.

Sauschuck said state police do not use the technology to “conduct ‘surveillance’, ‘spying’, tracking or monitoring of the general public or individuals not suspected of criminal activity.” It’s only used, he said, when a suspect’s face is captured on camera.

The commissioner did not provide any written policies or details on how the technology is used. State police still would not address questions on its use of cell site simulators, which allow police to track someone in real time.

There’s is no evidence that law enforcement in Maine is using new surveillance technology irresponsibly.

But the potential for misuse is great. Even if there is no nefarious intent, simply allowing law enforcement to decide unilaterally how the technology is deployed is almost certain to favor evidence gathering over individual privacy. Lawmakers, advocates and the general public must have a place in that discussion.

The Legislature can help make that happen. L.D. 2139, introduced by Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, in response to the Sunday Telegram report, would eliminate the part of the law that lets police agencies hide its investigative techniques in a way no other state allows.

In his statement, Sauschuck called facial recognition “simply another tool.” It’s not. All by itself, or paired with phone tracking, automated license plate readers, body cameras and other investigative techniques, and overlaid with social media and all the other information available online, face-scanning represents an exponential escalation of surveillance.

It’s already being used internationally to crack down on protesters and minority populations, and it’s being adopted by law enforcement nationwide without much in the way of public scrutiny.

In Maine, we can’t even get a complete answer on how it’s being used.

It’s past time for that to change, so Maine can have an honest and informed discussion about law enforcement, mass surveillance — and our right to privacy even in a fully online and interconnected world.

 

 


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