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Hillsborough, Clearwater police monitoring private security cameras

Critics say technology that lets agencies watch security footage in real time — provided users opt in — is “ripe for abuse.”
 
Police in Clearwater and Hillsborough County are able to access private security cameras through a partnership with Georgia technology company Fusus.
Police in Clearwater and Hillsborough County are able to access private security cameras through a partnership with Georgia technology company Fusus.
Published July 10, 2023|Updated July 14, 2023

Police in Hillsborough County and Clearwater are using a surveillance tool that’s raising privacy concerns around the country as it gives law enforcement real-time access to security cameras in neighborhoods.

A deal with Georgia technology company Fusus provides the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and Clearwater Police Department with a platform that can access footage from up to 2,500 local recording devices. This includes business security cameras and home security devices like Ring doorbell cameras, according to interviews and records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

Fusus offers a platform that, with permission from private camera owners, links all of the cameras together in a network that can be monitored by law enforcement. Police can also review recordings of video and audio from those cameras. Without Fusus, police might need a warrant for that footage. The company provides a number of ways to use its product and offers several add-ons, including a predictive policing tool, searches that rely on artificial intelligence and gunshot detection.

Yet while Fusus promotes its product as a tool that can help keep the community safer by increasing police oversight, civil rights and privacy advocates say the technology creates a vast police spying network.

Nationwide, Fusus is linked to at least 33,000 cameras in more than 60 jurisdictions, according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, an independent news organization dedicated to human rights and media freedom. Hillsborough and Clearwater appear to be the only local law enforcement agencies working with Fusus.

Interim Clearwater police Chief Michael Walek told the Times that Fusus has been used since 2021 to locate missing people and solve crimes. Fusus helped catch the killer from a shooting in March, Walek said, and the agency sees it as a tool that can help protect vulnerable people.

The department pays $95,000 per year and can access up to 1,500 public and private business cameras, though it currently only uses 283. While some police departments choose to livestream home security footage, Walek said Clearwater police instead monitor crimes and alerts near cameras that are registered with Fusus and then, if needed, ask owners if they will provide footage.

The cameras also allow for artificial intelligence searches that can scan for certain types of vehicles and people wearing a certain color. Walek said the searches have been useful in solving cases.

Contracting with Fusus is like buying a car, Walek said. A department can choose a model that has all of the add-ons, or go with a more basic model.

“It’s not us trying to be Big Brother,” Walek said. “This is all on a voluntary basis.”

How Hillsborough sheriff’s office got access

The Hillsborough sheriff’s office confirmed the ongoing use of Fusus to the Tampa Bay Times in June, though Fusus disclosed the partnership on its website in 2021. A sheriff’s office spokesperson declined to answer detailed questions about Fusus, citing a state law that shields information about police video systems from the public record.

The Times requested any contracts between Fusus and the Hillsborough sheriff’s office, and was initially told that none existed. When asked how no contracts could exist while the department is actively using the technology, the office then provided documentation.

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Records show that in July 2020, after using a Fusus pilot program, the Hillsborough sheriff’s office asked for help from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to pay for $48,476 to launch Fusus. For that price, the agency could gain access to up to 1,000 private cameras.

“This would allow for seamless integration of adding additional third party camera systems,” the funding request letter reads.

The request was part of a larger funding bid for its Eye on Crime network, which already consisted of hundreds of publicly owned cameras that the department can monitor at intersections around the county. In the same funding request from 2020, the sheriff also requested $195,501 for license plate recognition trailers, which house cameras that automatically scan license plates.

In a memo, Capt. Lora Rivera urged Sheriff Chad Chronister to adopt Fusus. Rivera said private camera access would allow deputies to “view real-time and recorded footage to assist with investigations.”

A letter from Fusus to Chronister said the department can also use “artificial intelligence based” searches and alerts for its public and private cameras, but did not explain exactly how those searches would be conducted.

The department only provided documentation from 2020, and said their contract has remained the same each year.

Fusus didn’t respond to email requests for information about its Tampa Bay partnerships. But in a 2021 blog on the Fusus website about its contract with Hillsborough County, CEO Chris Lindenau said the technology “is a force-multiplier technology solution that is extremely timely — it will help the Sheriff’s Office work more closely with the community in its crime mitigation efforts.”

Privacy, policing concerns

Albert Fox Cahn is the executive director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, an organization that resists government surveillance overreach and teaches communities how to protect their rights. He said that the right to privacy can be undermined by the use of Fusus.

“When we make it easier for officers to turn private cameras into a policing tool, they often can pose a threat to homeowners and business owners themselves. And using this level of community mapping and vehicle tracking is ripe for abuse,” Cahn said. “If an agency had proposed something like this 20 years ago, they would have been laughed out of the room, but the fact that these sorts of mass surveillance is now big business should worry all of us.”

The companies that Fusus partners with to offer add-ons to its product have faced scrutiny in recent years.

Fusus can access predictive policing technology from Geolitica, a company formerly known as PredPol, which uses an algorithm to advise law enforcement to focus on areas where the technology predicts crimes are most likely to occur. In 2021, a report analyzed around 6 million crime predictions made by PredPol and found that communities targeted for increased police presence were likely to be Black and Latino.

Fusus also partners with SoundThinking, the parent company for Shotspotter, a gunshot detection tool. In jurisdictions that choose the Shotspotter feature, Fusus cameras can be activated when Shotspotter detects a noise that sounds like a gunshot. In 2021, the Chicago attorney general found Shotspotter rarely led to evidence of a gun-related crime and negatively affected officer behavior, following the alleged wrongful incarceration of a Chicago man based partly on Shotspotter evidence.

A Clearwater police spokesperson said that Geolitica and Shotspotter haven’t been merged with its Fusus cameras. A spokesperson for the Hillsborough sheriff’s office said it doesn’t use Shotspotter, but declined to confirm whether it uses Geolitica.

At least 11 other agencies in Florida do business with Fusus, the Thomson Reuters Foundation report found, including the Orlando and West Palm Beach police departments.

Matthew Guariglia, senior policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that works to defend civil liberties in the digital world, said he worries that the technology will create a spying network that could “blanket an entire town in video surveillance.”

He said that because the technology uses private citizens’ devices, it’s difficult for privacy advocates to monitor how law enforcement is accessing cameras.

Beyond transparency issues, Guariglia said that when any community is put under a microscope, over-policing will eventually be the result.

“You’re going to expect to see a lot more arrests, a lot more surveillance, a lot more harassment from police,” he said.