Top 5 Surveillance Investigations of 2021

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Surveillance camera warning

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Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to present this selection of last year’s most compelling investigations into surveillance technology, compiled by our colleagues at GIJN member Coda Story, a nonprofit newsroom “dedicated to sustained, granularly focused, 360-degree storytelling on the roots of global crises.” Underscoring the importance of these stories is news this past week that 22 journalists at El Salvadoran news site El Faro had their phones hacked by Pegasus spyware an extraordinary 226 times. See El Faro’s own reporting on the hacks, and how they coincided with some of the site’s biggest investigative stories. 

Surveillance tech is worming its way into our airports and border crossings, our police stations and even our schools.

But, fortunately, investigative journalists went all-out in 2021. From a deep-dive into the dark side of pandemic tech in Singapore’s techno-utopia to an in-depth look at how schools are spending thousands on unreliable “aggression detectors” in the name of student safety, global reporters have been holding Big Tech accountable for its role in fueling authoritarianism worldwide.

These are a few of the investigations that held our attention over the past year and continue to have an impact.

1. The Pegasus Project

Pegasus Project image

It’s hard to overestimate the sprawling reach of Pegasus spyware. The tool, made by the Israeli company NSO Group, has been found on phones belonging to dozens of journalists and activists around the world.

Pegasus turns a phone into the Swiss army knife of surveillance tools. It can copy messages, record calls, and secretly turn on the phone’s camera or microphone.

An international coalition of newsrooms, known as the Pegasus Project, found the technology was used in the successful or attempted hacking of [numerous] phones, including those belonging to investigative journalists in Azerbaijan, Mexico, and India.

Since then, the revelations have kept rolling in. Among those targeted are journalists and activists from some of the world’s most repressive countries, including nine activists from Bahrain, which is believed to have acquired Pegasus in 2017, and a photojournalist in Hungary who investigated the luxury lifestyle of the country’s rich and powerful.

The fallout from the international investigation steadily continues. The US has blacklisted NSO Group, and India’s Supreme Court ordered an independent inquiry. The French were the first to corroborate the Pegasus Project findings with an investigation by an independent government authority, which ultimately confirmed Pegasus had targeted French journalists’ phones.

2. Los Angeles Police Department Sells Amazon Ring Cameras

Ring camera

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If you’ve ever filed a Freedom of Information Act request with a police department about a specific surveillance tool, you’ll know that police receive a lot of marketing emails from tech companies. But what the Los Angeles Times uncovered goes way beyond a few “Hi, let me tell you about our product!” notes that go unanswered.

Investigative reporter Johana Bhuiyan uncovered a striking relationship between LA police officers and representatives from Ring, which makes doorbell cameras and other home surveillance tech.

Ring gave officers free devices or discount codes, and officers turned around and promoted the product to the public. Emails showed that Ring donated doorbell cameras to raffle off at a beach party put on by a police station in West Los Angeles. Ring even asked police to hand out promo codes and fliers to influential people in the community.

Ring also relied on police to encourage people in the community to use the Neighbors app. Police have used the platform to gain access to footage without having to get a warrant.

Shortly after the Times story broke, LAPD launched an internal investigation.

I knew this sort of thing happened. I talked to one privacy advocate in California who told me about a community meeting in San Francisco where police promoted Ring to residents. But this investigation is a look under the hood at how exactly Ring courts police officers and then relies on them to endorse their product within the community.

3. ShotSpotter Comes Under Fire 

CCTV and acoustic sensors on street pole

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ShotSpotter, which claims to detect and locate gunshots, erroneously landed a man in jail for a murder he didn’t commit, according to an investigation by the Associated Press.

ShotSpotter had been used in around 200 court cases by the time AP published the investigation in August. But journalists found that it doesn’t always work. ShotSpotter misses gunfire that it should have caught. It mistakes motorcycles, trash pickup, and even church bells for gunshots. Police in Fall River, Massachusetts, told the AP the tech worked less than 50% of the time.

What’s more, ShotSpotter’s algorithm is not open to scrutiny from anyone outside the company. The company claims it’s proprietary. So prosecutors, judges, and juries are making decisions based on this technology when they cannot know whether it is accurate.

4. Clearview AI Goes Global

Facial recognition tech goes global

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Clearview AI, the infamous facial recognition, has a global footprint, according to an investigation by BuzzFeed News. As of February 2020, 88 law enforcement and government-affiliated agencies in 24 countries had used the tech.

The Federal Police of Brazil used Clearview between 501 and 1,000 times. So did police in Queensland, Australia, and the National Crime Agency in the UK. In some cases, like in Thunder Bay, Canada, law enforcement employees were using the technology without their superiors’ knowledge.

Since the BuzzFeed investigation was published in August, Clearview was fined $22.6 million by the UK privacy commissioner for violating data protection law.

This is the second groundbreaking investigation into the controversial company from the BuzzFeed team last year. In April, the newsroom reported that Clearview AI’s  facial recognition was tested or used by more than 1,800 tax-payer funded agencies in the US with little to no oversight or accountability.

“Prior to our reporting, there was no oversight,” Ryan Mac told me in regard to his team’s investigation into the use of Clearview in the US. “If we’re having to inform police chiefs and sheriffs and government leaders that their officers or their employees are using a policing tool, that illustrates there’s fundamentally no oversight.”

5. Border Surveillance Endangers Migrants

Surveillance camera, US-Mexico border

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Of course, we cover surveillance frequently at Coda Story, so no list of incredible investigations into its proliferation would be complete without a shoutout to my colleagues. One trend on our minds a lot in 2021: the ever-expanding matrix of surveillance along borders.

Coda senior reporter Erica Hellerstein went to the US-Mexico border to map out the expansive corridor of surveillance tech that has deadly consequences. The list of tools is long. Facial recognition at border crossings. Drones and blimps watching people crossing the desert from above. Underground sensors that detect movement. Infrared cameras, radar sensors, mobile surveillance towers. And it’s forcing migrants to take even more dangerous routes into the US.

“This technology is killing them,” said Cesar Ortigoza, who searches for migrants that have vanished while trying to cross through the desert. “It’s pushing them to find their own death.”

Meanwhile, the same thing is playing out on the opposite side of the Atlantic. As Coda’s Isobel Cockerell reported, the French and UK governments are pouring millions into the latest tech, all under the auspices of saving the lives of migrants trying to cross the perilous English Channel. But migrants aren’t deterred by the cameras or the drones. They’re still braving the frigid waters in small dinghies. And they’re still dying on the journey.

This article originally appeared in Coda Story and is reprinted here with permission. 

Additional Resources

Tips from the Pegasus Project: How to Report on Predatory Spyware

How Thousands of Volunteers & Amnesty International Mapped New York’s 15,000 Police Surveillance Cameras

Deepfake Geography: How AI Can Now Falsify Satellite Images


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Caitlin Thompson 
is a reporter and audience lead at CodaStory and hosts the Coda Currents podcast. She formerly worked at Foreign Policy magazine.

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