Scholarship Reporter Newsletter

The Undue Influence of Surveillance Technology Companies on Policing

This essay identifies three recent examples in which surveillance technology companies have exercised undue influence over policing: stingray cellphone surveillance, body cameras, and big data programs. By “undue influence,” the author is referring to the commercial self-interest of surveillance technology vendors that overrides principles of accountability and transparency normally governing the police. The article goes on to examine the harms that ensue when this influence goes unchecked, and suggests some means by which oversight can be imposed on these relationships.


Conventional wisdom assumes that the police are in control of their investigative tools. But with surveillance technologies, this is not always the case. Increasingly, police departments are consumers of surveillance technologies that are created, sold, and controlled by private companies. These surveillance technology companies exercise an undue influence over the police today in ways that aren’t widely acknowledged, but that have enormous consequences for civil liberties and police oversight. Three seemingly unrelated examples — stingray cellphone surveillance, body cameras, and big data software—demonstrate varieties of this undue influence. The companies which provide these technologies act out of private self-interest, but their decisions have considerable public impact. The harms of this private influence include the distortion of Fourth Amendment law, the undermining of accountability by design, and the erosion of transparency norms. This Essay demonstrates the increasing degree to which surveillance technology vendors can guide, shape, and limit policing in ways that are not widely recognized. Any vision of increased police accountability today cannot be complete without consideration of the role surveillance technology companies play.

"The Undue Influence of Surveillance Technology Companies on Policing" by E. E. Joh