A visual interpretation of different kinds of data that sets the groundwork to explore the effects of data fusion

Data Fusion & Surveillance

Impact on Freedom, Security, & Human Rights

Data-extracting technology is already widespread.

As a result of this technology, you leave large digital footprints about your behaviors, interests, beliefs, and movements.

Data fusion is the process of automatically bringing these points together to create a swarm of information that can reveal much about us.

Data Fusion can Enable

Tracking your movements through a city

For instance, a fusion system might combine footage from multiple security cameras to track individual’s movement throughout a city.

Data Fusion can Enable

Identifying vehicles around a crime scene

By correlating data from emergency dispatch centers with data from license plate readers, fusion systems can identify all the vehicles that were near the scene of a crime.

Data Fusion can Enable

Finding similarities between crime reports

Investigators can use fusion tools to algorithmically find similarities between crime reports to try and figure out if they were committed by the same person.

How is this new?

Law enforcement agencies have always practiced a form of fusion when carrying out investigations.

But manually extracting information from the large swarms of data now available can be laborious.

Police never had the resources to track every single person they suspected of committing a crime.

Automating this process by means of fusion makes surveillance easier, faster, more efficient, and more scalable.

When fusion is used for surveillance, it can be incredibly powerful.

If a law enforcement agency has acquired or is in the process of acquiring this technology, click here for a list of questions that you can ask them.

Why Does Fusion Matter?

Let’s see how fusion affects you and those around you. Select all the statements that apply to you. Don't worry, we won't be storing your responses.

I own a car
Your license plate number can be connected to you through DMV records. Additionally, data about you gathered by your car’s computer systems is sold to third parties who can then provide it to law enforcement.
I travel abroad
Security cameras and electronic ticket information can indicate the times and places you traveled.
I use mass transit
CCTV cameras (often equipped with facial recognition) are collecting footage of you.
I know someone who has been incarcerated
Law enforcement sometimes places people in gang databases based on loose affiliations with people they believe are involved in gang activities.
I have participated in a protest
During protests, law enforcement agencies deploy additional surveillance measures, including surveillance planes and drones, cell signal interceptors, temporary camera towers, and social media analytics—all of which can identify you.
I am a religious person
Geofence warrants and commercially available marketing data can be used to determine whether you were near the location of a religious gathering.
I have helped a friend or family member seek an abortion
Law enforcement can request information on citizens who searched the Internet about nearby abortion providers.
I leave the house
Doorbell camera footage that shows passers-by can feed into local fusion centers. Microphones posted on lampposts can capture conversations.
I use social media
Social media monitoring firms can collect information about your activities, your relationships, your location, and perform sentiment analysis on your posts.
I shop at the mall
Shopping centers, like many private businesses, conduct extensive video surveillance and often willingly provide police with direct access to this footage. Credit card transaction data is also collected by data brokers.

While these activities are entirely ordinary (and legal), they can all result in your personal, financial, location, and behavioral data being given to businesses and various municipal and law enforcement agencies.

In isolation, each of these data points can reveal much about you.

Together they enable police to develop sophisticated hypotheses about who you are and what you do.

False Positives

Fusion systems can lead police to mistakenly infer that a person is guilty of a crime they did not commit.

The more datapoints that get fused the greater the number of possibly false connections and inferences.

These false positives lead you to be suspected of—or even charged with—a crime that you had nothing to do with.

And because these technologies are poorly understood by the criminal justice system, and since their use is often cloaked in secrecy, it is often difficult for a falsely identified suspect to challenge and correct an error before it is too late.

True Positives

In these cases, it’s the true positives that are dangerous.

Fusion can enable governments to more effectively target and prosecute individuals for activities that are not, in fact, morally problematic.

Imagine that instead of responding to a violent crime, a police officer is searching for people who are exercising a fundamental human right.

Let's say they want to find people who have attended a particular religious center. They switch on their fusion software.

Drawing from CCTV footage near the center, the system compiles a list of 8 people that attended an event there. Then, by correlating the names and home addresses of those people to cell-phone location data and social media records, it identifies 100 people who may be associated with that religious movement.

These 100 names become a watchlist. And you're on it.

Because you’re on the watchlist, you can’t fly, you can’t apply for welfare benefits, and you are barred from certain jobs.

This might seem far-fetched, but dragnet surveillance of groups participating in protected activities—such as religious or political convenings—is common around the world.

And just because an activity you engage in is protected today, it may not remain so tomorrow.

Runaway Surveillance

A law enforcement agency might gain public approval to purchase a fusion system for one purpose, such as counter-terrorism operations or protecting children from endangerment.

This type of tech, however, is often available to all kinds of officers, even those not involved in such serious operations.

Which means that law enforcement can use this powerful technology for a wide range of cases. For example, they might end up using it to track and persecute unhoused individuals.

And ultimately, use this information against you.

The Bottom Line

A just society depends on the delicate balance between rights and security. Data fusion threatens to upend that balance.

A good first step to protecting that balance is to engage in an ambitious, ethics-forward dialogue with your community.

Here are some questions to get the conversation started.

Data Fusion Question Set

This tool was developed as part of the Ethics Accelerator program at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. It was inspired by the outcomes of an expert convening at the Council that brought together practitioners in law, governance, media and technology, and was held under Chatham House Rule.

The Carnegie Ethics Accelerator seeks to address technology ethics issues in a manner that matches the pace at which new technologies emerge and proliferate. The project is generously supported by the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation.

For press inquiries or questions, please contact Kevin Maloney, Director of Communications at [email protected]

Project Leads
Chris Gilliard & Arthur Holland Michel
Kathleen Egan
Content & Design Coordination
Samuel Bradshaw
Expert Advisors
Dahlia Peterson & Joel Rosenthal
Design & Development