Asset forfeiture funds help fund the ever-growing national surveillance state.

Civil asset forfeiture is a pernicious policy in its own right. It is nothing more than legalized, institutionalized, government-sanctioned theft. Forfeiture laws flip due process on its head and create perverse “policing for profit” incentives.

On top of that, we have long suspected that police departments use forfeiture money to secretly purchase surveillance technology. Recent Chicago Police Department emails obtained from a trove of hacked documents prove this happens, revealing that cops used asset forfeiture money to buy drones off the books with no oversight or accountability.

According to reporting by the Chicago Sun-Times, details of the CPD drone program were revealed in an email sent by the director of police research and development. In the email exchange, Karen Conway told other high-ranking police officials that the department’s counterterrorism bureau “utilized 1505 funds for a pilot Drone program that operates within the parameters of current laws.”

Conway wrote that drones “have been purchased and the Electronic & Technical Support Unit (Counter-terrorism) is in the process of creating a training to start a pilot. Some of the Drone uses will be for missing persons, crime scene photos, and terrorist-related issues.”

The city refused to answer specific questions about the drone program, saying the city would not answer questions relating to hacked emails.

The 1505 fund is made of asset forfeiture proceeds, along with other assets seized in connection to criminal investigations. According to the Sun-Times, the fund is “off the books” and isn’t included in the department’s budget. In addition to funding the purchase of drones, 1505 money was reportedly used to purchase cell-site simulators, commonly known as “stingrays.” These devices essentially spoof cell phone towers, tricking any device within range into connecting to the stingray instead of the tower, allowing law enforcement to sweep up communications content, as well as locate and track the person in possession of a specific phone or other electronic device.

According to data gathered under a state law requiring asset forfeiture reporting, the CPD reported taking in seized or awarded assets valued at an estimated $25.9 million over the last two years. That’s a lot of off-the-books money.

Assurances that law enforcement uses the drones “within the parameters of current laws” didn’t ease the concerns of Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. He told the Sun-Times the emails show the city “continues to pursue the invasive technologies without any public disclosure, oversight or publicly adopted privacy policies,”

“We should not be surprised. This behavior goes back more than two decades when Chicago first began to place surveillance cameras all across the city. To this day, residents of the city have never seen a privacy policy for the use of those cameras.”

In 2018, the Illinois legislature considered a bill to allow drones equipped with facial recognition technology to surveil protests. Separate versions passed each chamber of the legislature, but a reconciled bill never made it to the governor’s desk. The ACLU of Illinois said former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was the “heavy hand” pushing that legislation.

“Given that the city not so long ago sought legislation to permit using drones to surveil public gatherings, including those engaged in First Amendment activity, it is worth questioning its motivations,” Yohnka said

In a report on the city’s response to unrest in the wake of the shooting of George Floyd, Illinois Inspector General Joseph Ferguson noted that drones were likely flying overhead at some demonstrations.

The Chicago Police Department reveals how asset forfeiture money can serve as another secret funding source for surveillance programs, keeping them out of the public eye.

Local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, many law enforcement agencies can obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight using these off-the-books funding sources. In addition to forfeiture proceeds, local law enforcement agencies can also tap into federal government grants and other funding sources to buy high-tech spy gear. Members of the community, and even elected officials, often don’t know their police departments possess technology capable of sweeping up electronic data, phone calls and location information.

This isn’t just a local concern. State and local police surveillance feed into the national surveillance state.

Information collected by local law enforcement undoubtedly ends up in federal databases. The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through fusion centers and a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE.

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

The federal government encourages and funds surveillance technology including ALPRs, drones and stingrays at the state and local level across the U.S. In return, it undoubtedly gains access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By requiring approval and placing the acquisition of spy gear in the public spotlight, local governments can take the first step toward limiting the surveillance state at both the local and national levels.

Mike Maharrey

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