The term, Data Weapon, coined by D4BL founder and executive director, Yeshimabeit Milner, refers to any technological tool used to surveil, police and criminalize Black and Brown communities. There is a long history of these data enabled tools being weaponized against Black people. Data weapons are meant to augment or replace existing systems of surveillance, policing and criminalization of Black and Brown folks. In this way, these tools act as force multipliers that enhance the everyday racial terror of the criminal legal system. Data Weapons aggressively expand state surveillance efforts, exponentially increase the ability of law enforcement and state actors to relentlessly punish and criminalize Black communities, limit the movements of Black people, and effectively transform Black neighborhoods into zones of heightened patrol and policing, mirroring the prisons and detention facilities that hold millions of our people captive everyday.
This is a call for no more investing in Data Weapons, no more building new Data Weapons, no more disguising Data Weapons as legitimate and neutral. This is a call to explicitly and publicly name tools as Data Weapons.
#NoMoreDataWeapons is about increasing public awareness of the usage of Data Weapons and building collective momentum around policy fights against Data Weapons. Data for Black Lives is committed to a world where no more Data Weapons exist.
- Promote Black Self Determination: Public education on what the various Data Weapons are and how to organize against them
- Shift the National Narrative: Document and promote storytelling by Black communities and individuals directly impacted by data weapons
- Data Consolidation and Collection: Establish a dataset of carceral and surveillance technologies in use based on US location.
- Inform and Support Policy Innovation: Cultivate and support targeted campaigns to move policy concerning the use of data weapons
Law enforcement agencies are increasingly resorting to technology and data analytics to either supplement police patrol efforts or replace them altogether. Colossal in scope, the ecosystem of Data Weapons that is developing in the United States is intimately felt by Black communities on a day-to-day basis. Data Weapons are systems – and they do not operate in isolation, just as police and prisons exist for the purpose of protecting capital and maintaining the economic and political status quo. Given the prevalence and complexities of these systems, we need a widespread consensus around the dangers of Data Weapons in order to organize against them and we need collective action in order to hold folks accountable for deploying and investing in Data Weapons.
Today, it is estimated that over 100 million names are stored in criminal history databases. In some cities, 80% of the Black male population is registered in these databases. Modern law enforcement agencies use technology and data-enabled tools to supplement or replace ongoing efforts. Recent coverage of law enforcement usage of tools like facial recognition has brought to light the prevalence of data weapons to surveill and control Black communities.
Some of America’s earliest surveillance systems can be traced back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Systems to maintain order and constantly collect information about enslaved people were used to neutralize collective action and thwart uprisings. The goal of early carceral and surveillance systems was to prevent enslaved people from having access to the full personal autonomy necessary to organize, escape or fight back against enslavement. Throughout American history, there is a continuous investment in systems meant to control Black people.
During Reconstruction, a set of laws known as the Black Codes used punitive measures to control Black people’s activities and prevented Black folks from gaining political and economic autonomy and the full enjoyment of liberty after slavery. For instance, under this legislation, white landowners would use data to calculate how much a sharecropper owed, keeping sharecroppers in inescapable debt so that many Black sharecroppers remained functionally enslaved.
Black codes were later replaced by the infamous Jim Crow laws which notably codified segregation and carried on the legacy of maintaining white supremacy and subordinating Black folks to limited freedoms and liberties. Beyond laws, wide-scale government spying efforts targeted Black communities. For example, in the 1950s, the State of Mississippi set up the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to spy and surveil Black leaders and communities in an effort to disrupt civil rights work. During the same period, the FBI started its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which led to the domestic surveillance, intimidation, and discrediting of Black activists, community leaders, musicians, organizers, and the larger movement for civil rights.
#NoMoreDataWeapons demands that we highlight this historical context and stop this trend of surveilling, policing, and criminalizing Black communities.
#NoMoreDataWeapons Call to Action Join the movement in calling for #NoMoreDataWeapons! Follow the hashtag for campaign updates. Use the hashtag to help build awareness about the use of Data Weapons in your area and highlight local campaigns to fight against Data Weapons.
With increasing calls to abolish and defund law enforcement agencies, we continue to confront the legacy of state violence targeting Black people. #NoMoreDataWeapons reminds us that we cannot replace one tool of oppression with another.
We acknowledge that Data Weapons also exist outside the realm of policing. Data weapons are everywhere. Daily we witness the deployment of new data enabled systems weaponized in the economy, in healthcare and all aspects of life. We agree that FICO credit scores, the financialization of the economy through mathematical models designed to rob hardworking people of their livelihood; race-based risk calculators in medicine grounded in eugenics that send Black people to an early grave; and and social media ad delivery algorithms that send rental housing ads to Black people but homeownership ads to white people all constitute Data Weapons. Data Weapons are part of systems – they do not operate in isolation, just as police and prisons exist for the purpose of protecting capital and maintaining the economic and political status quo. We are vigilant in the fight against all data weapons, but our focus for now is on the use of Data Weapons in policing.
|Category 1 Modeling & Recognition|
|Predictive policing analytics/crime forecasting software||Programs that use past crime data as a way to “predict” where crime is likely to occur or who will be involved in a crime as either a victim or perpetrator|
|Body-worn cameras||Small cameras that may be attached to a police officer’s uniform to record video and audio of law enforcement encounters with the public|
|Facial recognition technology and other biometric systems||Systems used by police to surveil, identify, and criminalize individuals. The systems use racially biased algorithms to attempt to either conduct one-to-one matching (matching a particular person’s face with an ID) or one-to-many matching (scanning a crowd to find matches with face images stored in a database). Some of these systems are designed to track individuals based on body marks and biological features like voice and iris recognition|
|X-ray vans||Vans that expose anything in a given range, including in vehicles, homes, or buildings. They can expose people to radiation and health risks|
|Category 2 Geolocation|
|Automatic license plate readers||Software that captures license plate information, vehicle location, and photographs of drivers and passengers. The information collected can be used by police to track a person’s driving paths and travel patterns|
|Cell Site Simulators (Stingrays)||Devices that track and infiltrate cell phone data and communications by sending a signal that mimics a cell phone tower. They are often used by police during protests|
|Electronic monitoring or shackling||Tracking devices used to monitor the movements or location of a person to ordinarily enforce compliance with conditions of release|
|Drones||Unmanned aerial systems used in hyper-surveillance methods to usually capture footage of large populations and regions. The systems can include various types of equipment and there are also FAA regulations and waivers that cloak the use of drones and officer names|
|Category 3 Realtime Cross-Agency Collaboration|
|Domain Awareness Systems (DAS) and Realtime Crime Centers||Networks of cameras, software, sensors, databases, devices, and related infrastructure that provides information and analytics to police officers|
|Fusion Centers||Intelligence hubs and command centers that enable intelligence sharing between local, state, tribal, territorial, and federal agencies, with a focus on homeland security matters|
|Urban Shield||A militaristic law enforcement training program intended to help police respond to emergencies and acts of terrorism in coordination with federal authorities|
|Data shared across public agencies||Data collected from public-benefit programs, child-welfare programs, etc. is oftentimes shared with police to assist with surveillance|
|Category 4 Data Vendors & Databases|
|DNA databases||Databases used to trace individuals by their DNA through a technique known as investigative genetic genealogy. The data is profiled and oftentimes stored indefinitely to identify individuals suspected of a crime|
|Gang databases||Databases used to catalogue personal information of individuals targeted by police. With most gang databases, police agencies are not required to report the criteria for tracking. Nor are they required to report evidence of criminal activity to justify tracking a person|
|Social media monitoring||A tool used by police departments to monitor individuals or organizations by using software programs and undercover accounts|
|Social vigilante networks||Self-protection products and services that usually allow civilians to track, surveil, and quickly report anything that they feel is a threat|
*To learn more about the roots of Big Data in chattel slavery, stay tuned for Data for Black Lives’ upcoming work on “Data Capitalism”. To learn more about how digital tech has extended the systemic oppression of Black people, we recommend “Digitize and Punish: Racial Criminalization in the Digital Age” by Brian Jefferson, “Race After Technology” by Ruha Benjamin. To learn more about the weaponization of mathematical tools, we recommend “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil.
 University of Minnesota Press. “Digitize and Punish.” Book. Accessed February 23, 2021. https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/digitize-and-punish.