Profiling of Particular Populations

Profiling of Particular Populations

Often, the government’s gaze doesn’t fall on everyone equally. Advanced surveillance technologies may be targeted inappropriately at particular groups or used disproportionately used in minority communities.

A random, suspicionless search is a fishing expedition, and we have indicated our displeasure with such practices on many occasions… It is beyond dispute that many members of our society live, work, and spend their waking hours in ‘high crime areas,’ a description that can be applied to parts of many of our cities. That does not automatically make those individuals proper subjects for criminal investigations.

Washington State Supreme Court, State v. Jorden, 160 Wn.2d 121, 156 P.3d 893 (2007)


Often, the government’s gaze doesn’t fall on everyone equally. Advanced surveillance technologies may be targeted inappropriately at particular groups or used disproportionately in minority communities.

A seminal study of public CCTV surveillance in the United Kingdom found that only 24 percent of the people targeted by camera operators attracted attention due to suspicious behavior. On the other hand, “34 percent of people were surveilled merely on the basis of belonging to a particular social or sub-cultural group.” CCTV operators were almost 50 percent more likely to target black people ”for no obvious reason” than white people. In the United States, certain religious groups and communities of color have also been disproportionately targeted, for surveillance. The NYPD’s infiltration and electronic monitoring of mosques, Muslim student groups, and Muslim-owned businesses is one recent example. Privacy advocates have found data indicating that the Boston Police Department has targeted its automatic license plate reader program at working class and minority neighborhoods.

Advocates of new surveillance systems sometimes argue that hi-tech mass monitoring is “neutral” in a way that traditional policing is not. The Police Executive Research Forum points out, for instance, that ALPRs capture (almost) every plate in their field of view. But if surveillance technology is concentrated in a particular area or directed at a certain population, unequal treatment and heightened scrutiny from law enforcement results. Police should use surveillance tools only to investigate people under suspicion for a particular crime. Otherwise, powerful surveillance technology and personal information databases could exacerbate racial, ethnic, and class disparities in the criminal justice system.

Examples of Use

  • Los Angeles, CA
    Los Angeles, CA
    Targeting Day Laborers

    According to a 2012 report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Los Angeles Police Department used portable fingerprint scanners largely to keep tabs on Latino day laborers in the city. The report describes a scene in which officers on bicycles pull up to a group of men looking for work, “pull out portable fingerprint scanners and tell [them] to line up and have their fingerprints scanned.” These mobile scanners enable officers to instantly run fingerprints against a local biometric identification database. Powered by the Mobile Offender Recognition and Information System (MORIS), the scanners will soon be capable of taking iris and facial images for identification purposes. In addition to providing officers with ID, outstanding warrants, and criminal history, the scanners also send biographical details or other data the target volunteers back to the central database. As the Department of Homeland Security begins to collect fingerprints, face scans, and even DNA from immigrants to the United States, we can expect scenes like this to be repeated all over the country. 


When government agencies consider acquiring and using surveillance systems, communities and their elected officials must both weigh the benefits against the costs to civil liberties and carefully craft policies and procedures that help to limit the negative effects that surveillance will have on fundamental rights.  For a useful list of considerations, please visit the recommendations page.

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