The Minneapolis Police Department has a wide breadth of surveillance technologies that could be used to monitor and target protesters — including controversial facial recognition software Clearview AI, license plate readers, body cameras, and video analysis tools. The department and law enforcement agencies in neighboring cities have a history of surveilling residents with tech that can speed up the process of identifying and possibly arresting people.
After investigations were opened this month into the deaths of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis and an unarmed black woman in Louisville, Kentucky following police action, protests have broken out across the United States — including in Minneapolis, Denver, Columbus, and New York — expressing grief and outrage and demanding an end to police brutality.
Minneapolis has been the center of these protests following the May 25 death of 46-year-old George Floyd, who died after a white police officer detained him and placed him in a knee chokehold. The moments before Floyd's death, which were captured on camera, showed him struggling to breathe, repeatedly telling police, “I can’t breathe” and “they’re going to kill me.”
As protesters take to the streets, they'll be watched by law enforcement agencies that have trialed or are currently deploying a variety of surveillance tools. The Minneapolis Police Department has used an array of technologies in the past —including Clearview AI, which has scraped billions of photos from social media to power its facial recognition tool. Nearby police departments, as well as the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office and the Minnesota Fusion Center — which maintain jurisdictions that overlay Minneapolis — have also used Clearview.
“At a high level, these surveillance technologies should not be used on protesters,” Neema Singh Guliani, a senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, told BuzzFeed News. “The idea that you have groups of people that are raising legitimate concerns and now that could be subject to face recognition or surveillance, simply because they choose to protest, amplifies the overall concerns with law enforcement having this technology to begin with.”
According to documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News, more than 10 users with the Minneapolis Police Department had run more than 160 searches with Clearview as of February. The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the county that includes Minneapolis, had also conducted nearly 400 searches among 10 accounts. And the Minnesota Fusion Center — a specialized section of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) that shares crime intelligence — had run almost 40 searches as of February.
"We have in the past used Clearview AI to help identify unidentified victims in images that are part of human trafficking cases," a spokesperson for the Minnesota Fusion Center told BuzzFeed News. The Minneapolis Police Department and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.
The neighboring St. Paul Police Department had conducted nearly 40 searches with Clearview's facial recognition tool as of February. And the police department of Prior Lake, Minnesota, a suburb about 20 miles southwest of Minneapolis, racked up more than 1,100 searches between July 2019 and February 2020 with three Clearview accounts.
The Prior Lake Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the St. Paul Police Department denied that it had used Clearview after they checked with several units, despite the data seen by BuzzFeed News. In the past, multiple police departments initially denied using Clearview before walking back their statements following full reviews or audits of their officers.
The Minneapolis Police Department has not been forthcoming about its use of facial recognition. In July, a spokesperson for the department told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the organization had no plans to deploy the technology, but at least one user associated with the organization created an account with Clearview AI that month, according to data seen by BuzzFeed News.
Records obtained by local journalist Tony Webster showed that the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has deployed facial recognition since 2013. In July, the Star Tribune reported the office ran a suspect’s photo taken from Instagram through a facial recognition tool to reveal a possible match. It’s unclear if this facial recognition tool was offered by Clearview — which has taken images from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to train its software — or another company.
The Minneapolis PD also uses a wide range of other surveillance tools. In a 2019 white paper, the department said it used automatic license plate readers, or devices that capture images of license plates, allowing police to potentially track the movement of a person throughout a city or region. In 2009, the city paid Tennessee-based traffic camera company PIPS Technology more than $50,000 for both fixed and mobile license plate readers.
Additionally, according to new receipts obtained by BuzzFeed News via public record request, the neighboring Prior Lake Police Department has paid thousands of dollars for Thomson Reuters CLEAR — a law enforcement data aggregation tool that has also been used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement — from October 2016 through at least September 2019. CLEAR combines data from cellphones, license plate readers, and real-time arrest records. In aggregate, this data makes it faster and easier for police track and arrest suspects.
The Minneapolis Police Department also uses Securonet, a surveillance tool that lets police upload cellphone footage, integrate it with CCTV footage, and visualize it on a map. The police department started using Securonet in 2017, ahead of the city's hosting of the 2018 Super Bowl. The department signed another contract with Securonet in 2019.
This year, Minneapolis started using BriefCam, a high-definition surveillance camera system used throughout the city’s rail, bus, and metro system. The city's police department said in the white paper that it doesn’t currently combine surveillance cameras with real-time or automated facial recognition but noted that “it is conceivable that this could change in the near future.”
Rich Neumeister, a Minneapolis resident, submitted written testimony to the city subcommittee on data practice on Jan. 30 urging the city to enact restrictions on the use of facial recognition. At the time of writing, no restrictions existed.
“There needs to be guardrails, standards, and curtailing policies so that the use and rules are not developed by law enforcement agencies in secret,” he said. “Our privacy and civil liberties can be diminished if this onerous and powerful technology is not kept in check.”
“Our privacy and civil liberties can be diminished if this onerous and powerful technology is not kept in check.”
The Minneapolis Police Department also has a five-year contract with police body camera company Axon, which lasts through 2021. The agreement involves providing body cameras to all 888 sworn police officers in the city. The police department received a grant from the Department of Homeland Security in 2018 to help pay for these cameras.
Minneapolis also hosts an array of CCTV cameras, which the police can access. The Minneapolis Police Department said in a surveillance white paper that it uses Milestone software from Arxys — a video management tool that claims to offer "video motion detection" and "video analytics" — to analyze CCTV footage.
The Minneapolis Police Department has paid more than $2 million for ShotSpotter, an audio surveillance tool that listens for gunshots and visualizes possible shooting locations on a map. There’s no evidence, as of right now, that ShotSpotter effectively reduces crime and makes cities “safer,” which the company claims.
As noted in a surveillance white paper, law enforcement agencies operating in Minneapolis, like the state-run Minnesota BCA, have access to even more surveillance tools. For instance, the Minnesota BCA has the ability to deploy Stingrays, a tool that mimics cellphone towers in order to approximate the location of cellphone users. Stingrays have allegedly been used to target Black Lives Matter protesters.
Minneapolis could also be subject to surveillance at the federal level as the protests unfold. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) flew a Predator drone over the city on Friday, according to Jason Paladino, an investigative reporter at the Project on Government Oversight.
In a statement given to congressional staffers on Friday that was obtained by BuzzFeed News, CBP officials said the agency's Air and Marine Operations was "preparing to provide live video to aid in situational awareness at the request of our federal law enforcement partners in Minneapolis." The agency said drones are often deployed around the country to "augment law enforcement and humanitarian relief efforts."
"After arriving into the Minneapolis airspace, the requesting agency determined that the aircraft was no longer needed for operational awareness and departed back to Grand Forks," the statement read.
Additionally, several local police departments in the Minneapolis metropolitan area — including those in Spring Lake Park, Brooklyn Center, Plymouth, St. Louis Park, and Edina — have signed contracts with Ring, Amazon’s home surveillance company, according to the company’s map of active partnerships. Ring contracts give police access to the company’s law enforcement portal, which lets officers request camera footage from residents without obtaining a warrant first. In exchange, Ring has given police free cameras, and it has offered police more free cameras if they convince enough people to download Neighbors, its neighborhood watch app.
Saira Hussain, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told BuzzFeed News that the pervasiveness of surveillance technology could mean protesters face the risk of arrest long after demonstrations end.
“It’s important to know what types of risks there are and knowing that the risks might not just be in the moment,” Hussain said, “but also thereafter, because of all this immense amount of surveillance technology.”
With additional reporting from Hamed Aleaziz.