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What surveillance tools Nevada police use and why critics are worried about privacy

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Northern Nevada communities and law enforcement agencies rely on high-tech tools to prevent and investigate crimes. But when does it become intrusive or an invasion of privacy?

When you walk down the street, you can bet that several cameras will capture your image. It could be from one of the many traffic cameras or one affixed to a private business.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Reno Police Department, the Washoe County Sheriff's Office and Sparks Police use those public and private cameras in their daily jobs. Each agency said they use the technology to investigate a crime or prevent crimes.

Many of the cameras that officers, deputies and agents use are available to the public — like the hundreds of traffic cameras around highways and roads. Investigators, for example, may see if a suspect drove by a certain area. Investigators can plant other cameras, like the ones that can be pulled with a trailer. Those cameras could be watching an area that has a high crime rate.

Local surveillance tools

Here are some of the other tools our northern Nevada department use: Drones are used by Carson City, Lyon County, Clark County, State Police and others. Larger agencies like the FBI use Stingray. They look like cell towers and can monitor a phone's location and gather identifying information without the users' knowledge. And then there's the endless number of private and public cameras.

License plate readers are also on deputies' and officers' vehicles in Reno and Sparks and they are always gathering and storing information.

"License plate readers are used if we have a suspect vehicle or we have a crime trend. For example, we had we had a series of burglaries in south Reno, we would carry license plate readers that might’ve been in the area at the time of the burglary to look for a very specific car. In that case, there was," said Sgt. Josh Jenkins with the Property Crimes Division at the Washoe County Sheriff's Office.

Law enforcement said technology has helped investigators step-up their game.

"As criminals and criminal activity evolve, it’s incumbent on us to also evolve in that as well. Ensuring the safety of our community. The community would want that, to use the tools to keep us safe," said Lt. John Patton with the Sparks Police Department's Investigations Division.

Spencer Evans, FBI special agent in charge at the Las Vegas office said if people are out in public, where their activity can be observed, it's most likely cameras, sensors or someone picking up their image.

"There's so much that can be gathered without ever setting foot outside the office," said Spencer Evans, FBI special agent in charge. "Surveillance in some ways historically has a negative context around it. You might be envisioning, especially with the FBI, somebody in a black trench coat, binoculars looking from a darkened van across the way and while that certainly could be the case in some instances, I think it’s taken on a broader context today. Just because of the world we live in," Evans said.

The FBI and the Department of Public Safety told News 4 they wouldn't talk about specific investigative methods.

Invasion of privacy?

Not everyone is on board with law enforcement agencies using all this technology.

"With the pervasiveness and advent of technology, growing technology mechanisms, the use of surveillance work has only gotten worse," said Athar Haseebullah, the executive director with the American Civil Liberties Union. "It’s already been intrusive to civil liberties, but that intrusiveness is only expanding."

Again, most of the surveillance tools investigators use are available to the public. More intrusive tools, like a GPS tracker or a wire tap require a warrant.

Critics are concerned about how the public plays a roll in offering up surveillance video. Local police and sheriff's departments have partnerships with the company Ring that allows residents to upload video for investigations, which eliminates the need of a warrant. Hundreds of police departments across the country have a partnership with Ring. The ACLU said ring has also turned over video to police without the owner's knowledge. The public also won't know when businesses gives up security video either.

"When you have government that that’s able to engage in unfettered, spying and surveillance of individuals and communities, it undercuts a very notion for what this country stands for which is freedom and democracy," said Haseebullah.

UNR & a non-profit researching surveillance tools used in your city

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a partnership with the University of Nevada, Reno. The non-profit created a searchable database, called Atlas of Surveillance, of 11,000 surveillance purchases law enforcement have made across the United States.

"We have a lot of concerns about how much they’re using, but how they’re using it. Using it without accountability," said Dave Maass, the director of investigations with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Normalizing the surveillance is like normalizing a violation of our rights."

UNR students help gather the information through public records requests that law enforcement don't always want to talk about.

"To see if we’re being surveyed because we always need to know that," said Tristen Taylor a senior at UNR. "A bit scared I didn’t realize that there was so much surveillance on me and my peers."

News 4 asked deputies and officers what is done with the video that is captured that is not related to a crime. All said depending it's disposed off eventually. That could be a couple of weeks or a couple of months.

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