September 25, 2023

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It's the Technology

US police use counterterrorism money to buy spy tech

US police use counterterrorism money to buy spy tech

The report drew on a host of public records, and its financial calculations aggregate previous research with public data from government websites. The organizations provide a list of recommendations, including a call for cities and states to reject funding from UASI and redirect investments into public services like housing and education. They also advocate that Congress separate emergency aid from security funding and eventually divest the Homeland Security Grant Program.

FEMA has not yet responded to a request to comment. 

“This is almost like a hidden funding stream that boosts local police budgets and also feeds into this web of data abstraction, data collection and analysis, and reselling consumer data,” says Alli Finn, a senior researcher with the Immigrant Defense Project who worked on the report.

Further, UASI is designed to tie surveillance funding—under the umbrella of counterterrorism—to emergency preparedness programs that are crucial to many cities. For example, 37% of New York City’s proposed emergency management budget for 2023 comes from federal funding, almost all of it through UASI. In order for a local government to obtain UASI grants, it must spend at least 30% of its funds (as of 2022) on law enforcement activities, according to the report.  

There’s no such thing as free tech  

UASI isn’t the only way police forces get their hands on federally subsidized technology. The 1033 Program, named after its establishing section in the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act, allows for excess military equipment to be transferred to law enforcement groups. Police have used it to acquire over $7 billion worth of military-grade supplies like tanks, autonomous ground vehicles, and firearms. 

Some equipment is only tracked for one year after the transfer, and the program is controversial because of the effect militarized police have on communities of color. And another little-known program, called the 1122 Program, allows state and local governments to use federal procurement channels that cut costs by bundling purchase orders and offering access to discounts. The channels are available for “equipment suitable for counter-drug, homeland security, and emergency response activities,” according to US law. 

Once purchased, all equipment other than weapons procured through 1122 is transferred from Department of Defense ownership to law enforcement agencies. An investigative report by Women for Weapons Trade Transparency found that no maintained federal database tracks 1122 purchases accessible by the public. Through FOIA requests, the group uncovered $42 million worth of purchases through the program, including surveillance equipment.

And federal programs are not the only way technology is kept off the books. 

Many technology vendors provide “free trials” of their systems to police agencies, sometimes for years, which avoids the need for a purchasing agreement or budget approval. The controversial facial recognition company Clearview AI provided free trials to anyone with an email address associated with the government or law enforcement agency as part of its “flood-the-market” strategy. Our investigation into Minnesota surveillance technology found that many other vendors offered similar incentives.

“Secretive federal funding pipelines often allow police to sidestep elected officials and the public to purchase technologies that would never otherwise be approved,” says Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “It gives the police a power no other type of municipal agency has. Teachers can’t use federal dollars to circumvent school boards.”