During Donald Trump’s presidency technology will continue to improve. This will have a significant impact on law enforcement that should concern everyone who values civil liberties. Trump made no attempt during his campaign to hide the fact that he wants to expand domestic surveillance and pursue mass deportations. The infrastructure for such policies already exists and will become increasingly concerning as law enforcement gains access to new and improved gadgets and tools. Without Congress exercising its prerogative as a check on executive power we should all be prepared for the kind of police state Trump promised us.
The president-elect has repeatedly demonstrated a penchant for domestic surveillance, whether it’s drones on the border, snooping on mosques, “closing that Internet up,” or restoring Patriot Act provisions. Trump has also not been shy about dismissing civil libertarians who, in light of such proposals, express anxieties. When discussing his Internet-closing policy Trump described those who have free speech concerns as “foolish people.”
Assuming Trump remains committed to the policies he outlined during his campaign, we should be preparing for a reinvigorated bout of surveillance aided by new and improving technologies.
Trump has also supported the mass deportation of 11 million people, a policy that would require an extensive program of surveillance as well as a massive dedication of law enforcement resources. It would also, incidentally, be a logistical nightmare that would make D-Day look like an episode of Sesame Street.
During the campaign Trump positioned himself as a tough-on-crime candidate, winning himself endorsements from The Fraternal Order of Police and a union representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), though Trump confused this with being endorsed by the federal agency. Trump has also backed the widespread implementation of “stop-and-frisk” as a means of tackling crime.
While law enforcement in the United States in predominantly a state and local issue, the executive branch does oversee the country’s largest law enforcement agency (Customs and Border Protection), a force that operates in a “Constitution free” zone where two-thirds of Americans live. The executive branch also has authority over some of the best-funded and best-equipped law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Given Trump’s policy preferences and the fact that he will have a tremendous influence over an extensive law enforcement network it’s prudent for us to take a look at what tools are or soon will be at his administration’s disposal.
The federal government already uses drones, and despite the fact that they have a poor track record when it comes to domestic surveillance, Trump has said that drones have “great capabilities for surveillance” and should be flown above our border. Drone technology is improving, with Facebook announcing earlier this year that its solar-powered Internet-delivery drone, which has a wingspan larger than a Boeing 747 and is expected to be able to stay aloft for months at a time, had carried out a successful test flight.
But it’s not only large drones that ought to prompt concern. Drones the size of birds have already been used by militaries to conduct surveillance. Military equipment has a tendency to migrate from the battlefield to the home front, and we shouldn’t expect small drones to be an exception. Drones the size of insects are already with us and will surely be used for surveillance once technology allows.
Military drones are often equipped with surveillance cameras, some of which allow operators to keep entire towns under persistent surveillance. Such technology is too expensive for most domestic law enforcement, but CBP already has access to wide area surveillance systems, and this video technology will almost certainly become cheaper as it improves. Persistent surveillance tools mounted on manned aircraft are already available to domestic law enforcement. Reporting in August revealed that police in Baltimore had been using aerial persistent surveillance tools in secret for months. Law enforcement agencies governed by the Trump administration could use such technology in the next few years.
These persistent surveillance tools are not being mounted on massive solar-powered drones at the moment, but such tools may well soon be with us and no longer reserved to the imaginations of science fiction writers.
Drones can serve as mounts for a whole host of surveillance equipment such as thermal scanners, license plate readers, and laser radar that allows users to see through trees. In the near future biometric surveillance tools such as facial recognition software could be mounted on drones.
This is especially concerning because, according to a Government Accountability Office report released earlier this year, the FBI has access to more than 411 million facial photos and needs to “better ensure privacy and accuracy.” A Georgetown study from October found that “One in two American adults is in a law enforcement face recognition network.”
Assuming Trump remains committed to the policies he outlined during his campaign, we should be preparing for a reinvigorated bout of surveillance aided by new and improving technologies. The Founding Fathers were smart enough to design a system of checks and balances to halt disturbing and unwarranted growths in executive power. This is especially important at a time when the presidency has grown into something of a cult, with significant influence over a vast law enforcement and intelligence apparatus. But these checks only work if Congress is interested in using them. Only time will tell us if our elected representatives are so inclined.
Matthew Feeney is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.