It was the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protesters gathered in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2014, awaiting word on whether a grand jury would indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown.
Unbeknownst to the demonstrators, the police were also waiting — and watching. Stowed away in a secure room known as the Joint Operations Command Center, officers and analysts from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department kept eyes on the news, activists’ social media accounts, and closed-circuit television feeds from across the district, according to internal MPD emails. The police were ready to funnel intelligence to officers on the ground, who were instructed to provide updates on protest activity back to the JOCC every half-hour.
Five months later, the MPD “activated” the JOCC again to monitor demonstrations against the Baltimore police’s killing of Freddie Gray, the emails show. In the lead-up to the protests, MPD analysts scoured social media for demonstration times and locations, as well as any possible indications of violence or civil disobedience, while officers on the ground sent photos of the gatherings. Then when marches started, the officers provided constant updates on where protesters were moving as the JOCC continued to gather intelligence, including on how demonstrators were monitoring the police presence and whether they suspected that there were plainclothes cops among them. (The JOCC had a practice of communicating with undercover officers, including to monitor protests.)
The MPD designed the JOCC as a surveillance control center. It contains more than 20 display monitors linked to around 50 computer stations, all connected to the MPD’s broad arsenal of intelligence data programs and surveillance sources. Launched in a rush on September 11, 2001, it was the MPD’s first “war on terror”-era infrastructure upgrade. Since then, the command center has served as a template for area police’s massively expanded domestic surveillance apparatus.
As a jurisdictional oddity and the site of the country’s most powerful institutions, D.C. contains more law enforcement officers — coming from local, regional, and federal agencies — per capita than any other major city in the U.S. The highly coordinated agencies have together built a complex network of partnerships, initiatives, and technology to surveil the district. The JOCC, for example, is accessible to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and regional police intelligence hubs, in addition to the MPD.
For years, this sprawling web of surveillance has been shrouded in secrecy. Now, more than two decades into the frenzy of police monitoring of ordinary citizens, recently uncovered documents are revealing its scope and practices. (The MPD did not respond to The Intercept’s emailed questions.)
“There’s a real potential for this kind of surveillance to cause a chilling effect and a climate of fear around the right to protest in the city.”
Last year, the transparency collective known as Distributed Denial of Secrets published 250 gigabytes of MPD emails and attachments, stolen as part of a hack by the ransomware group known as Babuk and made searchable by the Chicago-based Lucy Parsons Labs. Using the documents, news outlets — including The Intercept — revealed that the MPD’s database of supposed gang members is riddled with errors and used to justify aggressive policing of Black communities; that an MPD robbery unit likely engaged in “jumpout” intimidation tactics and targeted schools and youth; and that a powerful MPD tribunal overrides the department’s attempts to fire bad cops. Unreported emails in the trove shed light on the D.C.-area law enforcement agency’s elaborate surveillance operation.
And this week, a band of civil rights organizations known as the ICE Out of DC Coalition published a report — based on documents obtained through public records requests as well as public sources — mapping out many of the capital region’s law enforcement surveillance agencies and technologies.
Taken together, the report and the hacked documents provide a first-of-its-kind look into the close and frequently invasive eye the police keep on D.C.-area residents.
“Many of these systems are constantly collecting information about D.C. residents and can provide precise details on their daily lives in real time,” said Dinesh McCoy, a staff attorney at Just Futures Law and co-writer of the ICE Out of DC report. He pointed to the cops’ practice of sifting through social media, calling it “troubling,” especially when targeting First Amendment-protected activities.
“There’s a real potential for this kind of surveillance to cause a chilling effect and a climate of fear around the right to protest in the city, especially for Black and brown people that are targeted most often by police.”
Among the tools to which MPD personnel have access in the JOCC is a powerful computer program known as Aware.
In February 2013, analysts with the department’s intelligence branch gushed over an Associated Press article about the New York City Police Department’s then-newly released Domain Awareness System. The system is a highly controversial, Microsoft-developed program that collects data from security cameras, radar sensors, license plate readers, and numerous other sources to create a surveillance map of the five boroughs with real-time alerts and analytics.
“This sounds fantastic and is incredibly interesting,” one MPD analyst wrote in an email. “It’s an incredible system,” another replied, adding that he had seen it in action the week prior and that the MPD was in talks with Microsoft to develop a similar program. The following year, the MPD’s Aware system was up and running. By late 2015, patrol officers, intelligence analysts, and command staff had access to it.
Like the Domain Awareness System, the MPD’s version of the program uses artificial intelligence to compile various police data sources — including 911 call records, incident and offense reports, gunshot detector alerts, and license plate reader data — as well as open-source information, like social media feeds, and live video from closed-circuit cameras throughout Washington.
Aware is also connected to regional and federal law enforcement databases, like the Washington Area Law Enforcement System and the FBI-administered National Crime Information Center, which, among other records, includes warrants issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Aware then displays that data in a multifaceted interface. Among the included widgets is a “threat console” that lists recently reported incidents. A “correlation panel” automatically connects those incidents to other events, locations, and persons of interest. There is a map window, which allows MPD personnel to view event locations in relation to other areas of interest, including supposed gang territories. One of the widgets opens up video panels that allow officers and analysts to view any of the MPD’s camera feeds with the click of a mouse. (It’s unclear whether Aware only incorporates feeds from the district’s roughly 350 MPD-owned surveillance cameras or if it also streams from the thousands of MPD-accessible cameras owned by other agencies.)
In a promotional video posted to YouTube in 2018, Microsoft representatives demonstrated Aware’s surveillance capabilities by walking through a fictional assault-turned-carjacking scenario. Role-playing as a police sergeant, one representative used Aware to discover that the suspect was on the federal terrorist watchlist. He used police records, gun permit records, license plate readers, security cameras, and Twitter alerts to pinpoint the supposed suspect, then sent that information to the FBI. Eventually, the fictional sergeant was able to coordinate units to intercept the carjacker.
“The MPD — and the police in general — the more they get away from 9/11, the more they need to justify their constant surveillance.”
With the demo, the Microsoft reps painted a picture in which seemingly everyday incidents like their fictional assault are cause for police alarm — and thus cause for increased surveillance. (Microsoft declined to comment for this story.)
“When you deal with your jurisdiction and today’s global threat, we have to look a little bit deeper,” one of the representatives explained. “What are the informations [sic] we know, and what is it that makes [what is] on face value a normal 911 call maybe have elevated risk?”
To civil liberties advocates, the rationale is cause for concern. “They’re making tremendous leaps in order to justify the surveillance of Black and brown residents,” said Carlos Andino, a fellow at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “The MPD — and the police in general — the more they get away from 9/11, the more they need to justify their constant surveillance.”
As MPD analysts use Aware to surveil the streets of D.C., an alphabet soup of lesser-known law enforcement bodies that coordinate with the department — including nongovernment organizations — keep their own watch.
A nonprofit association of local and regional government leaders known as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments supports its own set of mass surveillance systems, including a network of over 50 fixed and mobile automatic license plate readers and a fingerprint identification system, according to the ICE Out of DC report. A 2019 memorandum says the license plate reader system scans over 500,000 plates each day in D.C. alone, sharing the collected data with 24 federal, state, regional, and local law enforcement agencies.
The Council of Governments also facilitates the sharing of law enforcement intelligence methods, the hacked emails show, through police intelligence and technology committees that host summits to discuss the future of gang enforcement, “crime forecasting,” and other topics.
According to Andino, predicting crime is D.C. police’s latest rationale for heavy surveillance. In February, MPD Chief Robert Contee testified to the D.C. Council that the department is taking an “intelligence-led policing approach” that involves keeping a close watch on certain areas of the district. And Contee has asked for funding for more intelligence analysts and equipment.
Until 2021, the Council of Governments operated a secret face recognition tech system, data from which it shared with 14 local and federal agencies. It shut down that project after it was revealed that the U.S. Park Police had used it to identify people participating in the 2020 protest at Lafayette Square at which cops tear-gassed demonstrators before then-President Donald Trump staged a photo with a Bible. According to the Washington Post, the face recognition system, which contained a database of 1.4 million people, was used more than 12,000 times in 2019 and 2020.
Though it’s not an official government organization, the Council of Governments receives millions of dollars a year — nearly $10 million as of 2020 — from local and federal government agencies, including D.C.’s Homeland Security Emergency Management Agency. HSEMA itself operates a system of at least 5,600 closed-circuit security cameras in D.C. and has access to roughly 150 traffic feeds operated by the D.C. Department of Transportation — dwarfing the MPD’s camera system. HSEMA is funded largely through Department of Homeland Security grants, and its operating budget ballooned in recent years — from $70 million in fiscal year 2018 to $320 million in 2021.
It’s impossible to know exactly what surveillance data the D.C. fusion center disseminates and to which partner agencies.
HSEMA also operates the D.C. area’s main fusion center, one of the secretive intelligence-sharing hubs created during the post-September 11 expansion of domestic surveillance. The fusion center liaises with no fewer than 25 local, regional, and federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (with which it shares office space), the D.C. Metro Transit Police Department, and the U.S. Park Police.
Since fusion centers are opaque, it’s impossible to know exactly what surveillance data the D.C. fusion center — formerly the Washington Regional Threat Assessment Center, now known as the National Capital Region Threat Intelligence Consortium — disseminates and to which partner agencies. The ICE Out of DC coalition is especially concerned about the information being used for immigration enforcement: D.C. passed “sanctuary city” legislation in 2020 that prohibited district agencies from collaborating with and sharing certain information with ICE, but with the Department of Homeland Security — ICE’s parent agency — so deeply enmeshed in this web of surveillance tech and tactics, there are unanswered questions about the coordination between the feds and local cops. (For example, through a data-sharing program, Homeland Security, HSEMA, the fusion center, and the MPD — among other agencies — are able to exchange classified information.)
“D.C. has so many overlapping local and federal law enforcement entities and surveillance systems,” said McCoy, of Just Futures Law. “And that ecosystem creates many potential avenues for either direct or inadvertent cooperation between local police and ICE.”
Whatever the extent of its cooperation with ICE, HSEMA and its fusion center work extensively with the MPD. Among other information, the hacked emails show that the MPD’s intelligence branch shares data from and access to its parolee GPS tracking software, known as VeriTracks, and lists of people on its gang database with HSEMA and fusion center personnel.
The agencies are close partners in surveillance — although the emails suggest that the relationship isn’t always friendly. In 2012, fusion centers came under fire after a Senate investigation castigated them for wasteful spending, ineptitude, and civil liberties intrusions. The morning of the report’s public release, MPD intelligence analysts shared a Washington Post article about it among themselves.
“The issues they describe in the article are the exact issues I see with my experience with the fusion center,” one analyst wrote, accusing fusion center personnel of getting paid “six figures” to “sit in a room and watch the news indefinitely.”
“All of them make 100k plus,” another analyst replied. “They put out bulletins that are of no interest to law enforcement OR their federal partners. They refuse to learn anything new or analytic techniques even when its free and offered (by me). They covet data … but then lack the ability to do anything with it.”
He wrote, “I wouldn’t come to their defense at all.”