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How US police use counterterrorism money to buy spy tech

A new report shows that federal aid from FEMA is often used to buy surveillance equipment, without the public knowing much about it

December 7, 2022
photo illustration of a pole with surveillance cameras partially submerged by flood waters
Photo Illustration: Stephanie Arnett/MITTR, unsplash

Grant money meant to help cities prepare for terror attacks is being spent on surveillance technology for US police departments, a new report shows. 

It’s been known that federal funding props up police budgets, but the new report, written by the advocacy organizations Action Center on Race and Economy (ACRE), LittleSis, MediaJustice, and the Immigrant Defense Project, reveals that these federal grants are bigger than previously understood. 

The Homeland Security Grant Program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has doled out at least $28 billion to state and local agencies since 2002, according to the report’s authors. This money is intended for counterterrorism and tied to emergency preparedness funding that many cities depend on. 

But the report finds that this federal program has actually funded “massive purchases of surveillance technology.” For example, public records obtained by the researchers found that the Los Angeles Police Department used funding from the program to buy automated license plate readers worth at least $1.27 million, radio equipment worth upwards of $24 million, Palantir data fusion platforms (often used for predictive policing), social media surveillance software, cell site simulators valued at over $600,000, and SWAT equipment. 

Because these grants are federally-funded it means purchases can stay out of public view. That’s because while most police funding comes from tax dollars and has to be accounted for, federal grants don’t require as much public transparency and oversight. The report’s findings are yet another example of a growing pattern in which citizens are increasingly kept in the dark about police tech procurement.

“The acquisition and use of police surveillance technology deserves greater scrutiny than many other government purchases. These tools can pose serious threats to civil liberties,” Beryl Lipton, an investigative surveillance researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told MIT Technology Review in an email after reviewing the report. 

“However, we often see a dearth of transparency when it comes to this type of equipment, in some cases because agencies do not want to be held accountable for their use of such invasive tools.”

“A hidden funding stream” 

The report highlights the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), which assists cities and their surrounding areas with counterterrorism. The report traces how “counterterrorism narratives” have been used by government agencies since 9/11 to justify the creation of a militarized police force and the explosion of public surveillance. In 2022, UASI provided $615 million to local and state agencies for counterterrorism activities, according to its website.

UASI is the largest program within the Homeland Security Grant Program (itself part of FEMA), which also includes Operation Stonegarden, a border management program, and the State Homeland Security Program, a security technology initiative.

“From our understanding, this is the first broad and most current analysis of the program,” says Aly Panjwani, a senior research analyst at ACRE. He cautions that data was aggregated through records requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act with the cities of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Boston and is therefore not comprehensive.

The report drew on a host of public records, and its financial calculations aggregate previous research with public data from government websites. The organizations provide a list of recommendations, including a call for cities and states to reject funding from UASI and redirect investments into public services like housing and education. They also advocate that Congress separate emergency aid from security funding and eventually divest the Homeland Security Grant Program.

FEMA has not yet responded to a request to comment. 

“This is almost like a hidden funding stream that boosts local police budgets and also feeds into this web of data abstraction, data collection and analysis, and reselling consumer data,” says Alli Finn, a senior researcher with the Immigrant Defense Project who worked on the report.

Further, UASI is designed to tie surveillance funding—under the umbrella of counterterrorism—to emergency preparedness programs that are crucial to many cities. For example, 37% of New York City's proposed emergency management budget for 2023 comes from federal funding, almost all of it through UASI. In order for a local government to obtain UASI grants, it must spend at least 30% of its funds (as of 2022) on law enforcement activities, according to the report.  

There’s no such thing as free tech  

UASI isn’t the only way police forces get their hands on federally subsidized technology. The 1033 Program, named after its establishing section in the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, allows for excess military equipment to be transferred to law enforcement groups. Police have used it to acquire over $7 billion worth of military-grade supplies like tanks, autonomous ground vehicles, and firearms. 

Some equipment is only tracked for one year after the transfer, and the program is controversial because of the effect militarized police have on communities of color. And another little-known program, called the 1122 Program, allows state and local governments to use federal procurement channels that cut costs by bundling purchase orders and offering access to discounts. The channels are available for “equipment suitable for counter-drug, homeland security, and emergency response activities,” according to US law. 

Once purchased, all equipment other than weapons procured through 1122 is transferred from Department of Defense ownership to law enforcement agencies. An investigative report by Women for Weapons Trade Transparency found that no maintained federal database tracks 1122 purchases accessible by the public. Through FOIA requests, the group uncovered $42 million worth of purchases through the program, including surveillance equipment.

And federal programs are not the only way technology is kept off the books. 

Many technology vendors provide “free trials” of their systems to police agencies, sometimes for years, which avoids the need for a purchasing agreement or budget approval. The controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI provided free trials to anyone with an email address associated with the government or law enforcement agency as part of its “flood-the-market” strategy. Our investigation into Minnesota surveillance technology found that many other vendors offered similar incentives.

“Secretive federal funding pipelines often allow police to sidestep elected officials and the public to purchase technologies that would never otherwise be approved,” says Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “It gives the police a power no other type of municipal agency has. Teachers can’t use federal dollars to circumvent school boards.” 

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