A report released last week details the massive, complex police databases that US law enforcement in LA and Massachusetts use to investigate suspects. Through a service known as COPLINK, the storehouses of data that local police use during investigations are being shared with a division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations. While ICE representatives in the report note the usefulness of the software, several privacy, immigration, and civil liberties advocates question both the accuracy of the software and the use of data to surveil people.
COPLINK combines information from multiple police databases, and then allows law enforcement to sort and filter through them in the course of their investigations. Injustice Today reviewed documents from the Massachusetts and LA versions of the program. The LA version combines information from the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Pasadena departments, while the Massachusetts version uses Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge police departments.
Using COPLINK, law enforcement can search through enormous amounts of data on people, some of whom have contact with police but no convictions. Police can search race, hair colour, eye colour, complexion, ethnicity, country of origin, and even tattoos and other distinguishing marks on their bodies. Once selected, law enforcement can sort and display a person’s “associational data,” information on other people connected with the person, with the option to literally map out the person’s life by showing their network of friends and associates, vehicles, and organisations.
Privacy experts rail again this type of surveillance because it’s possible to be included in both the local police and thus COPLINK databases without ever being convicted of a crime. And because of family structures, employment and simple geography, it’s entirely possible to be “associated” with a gang member or suspect without having ever been convicted of a crime yourself.
“If someone from ICE HSI searched for gang members in Massachusetts, that person doesn’t necessarily know if someone has been identified as a gang member by a Somerville police official just because they had a hunch or by a Waltham officer because they killed three people,” Kade Crockford, head of the ACLU of Massachusetts’s Technology for Liberty Program, told Injustice. “There’s a flattening that takes place, where allegations by local police who may have no idea what they’re talking about, suddenly look the same as allegations of real violence.”
The full report details how the “flattening” of data – and how it’s shared across districts – creates a veneer of objectivity in the reports. Gang databases can be inaccurate, however (the California databases have famously named several toddlers as gang members) but they’re rarely audited for accuracy. Immigrants and people of colour pay the price for false positives and misidentification if the software is faulty, not vendors or engineers.
“For them, it’s better if a bunch of innocent people get apprehended than letting one guilty person go free,” Sarah Stokes, an immigration lawyer with the Boston University School of Law, told Injustice.