Yves here. This post is useful for not merely describing how at least one US surveillance firm is trying to get its claws into UK local governments but also for providing some detail on how its spying tools work. I would be curious if any informed readers can opine as to how successful and competitive Fusus’ offerings are in the US. Sometimes an overseas push is the result of poor performance or stalling sales in the home market combined with having or having found contacts overseas that the vendor thinks give them an edge.
By Zac Larkham, a freelance journalist and student activist at Sheffield Hallam University. Originally published at openDemocracy
A US tech firm has been privately lobbying UK councils and police forces to scale up their surveillance using an AI-powered platform used against Black Lives Matter protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, openDemocracy can reveal.
At least one London council is already trialling the software as a result of approaches by the company, Fusus, which claims to be “the most widely used and trusted real-time crime center platform in US public safety”.
Fusus has been attempting to expand into the UK, opening an office in London’s Canary Wharf in March this year and hiring former officers from the Met to approach councils and police forces. It has approached Tower Hamlets and Hackney borough councils and the Met, City of London and Merseyside police forces to sell products that integrate CCTV and surveillance networks, according to Freedom of Information requests.
Kensington and Chelsea Council and Merton Council also confirmed they had also been in contact with Fusus when approached by openDemocracy, with Kensington and Chelsea running a 60-day trial starting earlier this month.
The firm’s flagship product is a surveillance hub known as a “real-time crime centre” (RTCC) that links up video and other surveillance technologies to a central feed. At the moment public CCTV feeds are monitored by council and police employees, but the Fusus RTCC system helps automate surveillance: police and other authorities can incorporate sophisticated, automated analytical software to analyse multiple real-time sources of footage and use this data to run predictive policing software, streamlining what could otherwise take officers days or weeks.
There is also the option of viewing the streams remotely, or even on officers’ phones, using the ‘FususOPS’ app.
Critics have warned that the use of tech like Fusus is a step towards a “surveillance state”.
Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns manager at human rights group Liberty, said: “The expansion of mass surveillance has no place in any rights-respecting democracy. We should all be able to live our lives without the threat of being watched, tracked and monitored by the police or those in power.
“The increasing use of this sort of technology in policing embeds oppression, threatens our rights and liberties, and will change society as we know it. The government must ban use of this sort of technology by the police.”
Big Brother Watch’s senior advocacy officer Madeleine Stone told openDemocracy: “Local authorities and police forces should reject lobbying efforts from companies that profit from building surveillance states.”
So far, only Kensington and Chelsea Council has confirmed its interest in working with Fusus. A spokesperson told openDemocracy the council’s housing department is trialling Fusus for 60 days and “exploring methods that in future could link the cameras on our housing estates back to a central point so it’s easier for us to review and download images when investigating reports made by our communities on issues that affect them, such as anti-social behaviour”.
They say the Fusus hardware will only be connected to cameras that cover “communal spaces” and entrances to housing, and will not watch public space. It is not known whether residents had been informed about the trial.
A Hackney Council spokesperson said no decision about whether to work with Fusus had yet been made, but emails seen by openDemocracy show a meeting was in the process of being organised as of 21 April this year, when a council employee asked for a demonstration. openDemocracy also understands Tower Hamlets Council has had multiple meetings with Fusus.
A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said: “Fusus demonstrated its products at the Police Strategy Forum in 2022. Employees of the MPS were present at this presentation and were in contact with Fusus after this event. The MPS has no current plans to work with Fusus.” Merseyside Police said they did not have plans to work with Fusus, while the City of London Police refused to give any details.
What Are Real-Time Crime Centres?
Real-time crime centres live-stream video footage from CCTVs, number plate recognition devices and other kinds of surveillance data to a central hub where they can be analysed by police employees and artificial intelligence (AI).
RTCCs were first established in New York in the wake of the 11 September terror attacks. They have recently experienced a boom in the US, particularly following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
The Atlas of Surveillance project, which monitors police surveillance technology in America, says the country has more than 135 RTCCs. Critics say RTCCs significantly expand surveillance by the state, allowing law enforcement bodies to monitor everyone using public spaces as well as targeting specific individuals.
In addition, when US police departments purchase the Fusus RTCC platform, local businesses and public institutions are encouraged to connect their own cameras by purchasing ‘FususCORE’ bundles – hardware that connects CCTV cameras to the RTCC platform – which can cost $350 to $7,300, plus an annual $150 subscription. Owners can choose to allow RTCC operators access to their CCTV.
Homeowners can also sign up their private CCTV and Amazon Ring doorbells. Once set up, CCTV cameras stream footage directly to the local police department’s RTCC for analysts and AI to watch – or, if the owner prefers, police can request to view footage from the cameras in a few clicks, creating a network of private cameras across a city the police can easily view.
In exchange, CCTV owners get what is effectively live police monitoring of their private property.
Facial Recognition Technology
Many of the technologies incorporated in RTCCs are already in use by police forces in the UK, including live facial recognition, automatic number plate readers (ANPRs), drones, social media monitoring software and software such as predictive policing (used in the Met’s controversial Gangs Matrix). RTCCs stream these sources and applications together in real time so they can be easily viewed together on “a single pane of glass”.
US company Axon, which develops technology and weapons for military, law enforcement and civilian use, including Tasers, partnered with Fusus last year, which saw it invest $21m in Fusus and means Axon products are now compatible with Fusus. The Met purchased 22,000 Axon body-worn cameras in 2020, 19,000 of which were ‘Axon Body 3’ devices capable of livestreaming to the Fusus platform.
The quantity of data produced by RTCCs is too much for any human to process. Fusus uses AI to search old footage for items such as unattended rucksacks or specific pieces of clothing, or set up alerts for when the AI spots those items in livestreams.
It states its AI does not store any “facial recognition or innate human characteristics” (such as race) in its databases. However, there remains a possibility that video streams collected through Fusus could be exported to separate facial recognition software, significantly speeding up the process.
Amnesty, Big Brother Watch and Liberty all spoke out against the use of facial recognition in April when the Met police described it as “game-changing” and announced it would be pushing ahead with the technology’s use.
Targeting Activists and Marginalised Communities
In the US, RTCCs have been used repeatedly to identify activists and protesters across the country. The Minneapolis police department’s Strategic Information Center, the local RTCC that uses Fusus software, played a central role inOperation Safety Net, a surveillance programme set up to target protesters and journalists during Derek Chauvin’s trial for murdering George Floyd.
The technology RTCCs rely on has been used disproportionately on poorer and ethnic minority communities, exacerbating already existing disparities in policing. “There’s this idea that using all these data streams we’ll be able to do smarter policing… that almost always just means that they’re going to keep heavily policing poor and minority areas,” said Beryl Lipton, an investigative researcher from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
In 2010, for instance, West Midlands Police and Birmingham City Council came under fire for installing more than 200 ANPR and CCTV cameras in majority-Muslim neighbourhoods as part of an anti-terrorism initiative.
“History shows us that surveillance tools target marginalised communities – especially people of colour and those from a working-class background. The last thing we should be doing is widening use of such technology,” said Andrews, from Liberty.