When Not Hiding Cameras In Traffic Barrels And Streetlights, The DEA Is Shoving Them Into… Vacuums?

from the DEA-surveillance-sucks dept

If it exists, the DEA probably wants to stash a camera in it.

A Denair, California-based company called the Special Services Group, LLC won a $42,595 DEA purchase order at the end of November for a “custom Shop Vac concealment with Canon M50B.” Canon describes the M50B as a “high-sensitivity…PTZ [Pan-Tilt-Zoom] network camera” that “captures video with remarkable color and clarity, even in very low-light environments.” The M50B retails for about $3,400; the acquisition is being funded by the DEA’s Office of Investigative Technology and is presumably intended to assist agents in a specific operation, rather than for wider, passive monitoring.

This almost sounds like an ultra-low tech version of the NSA’s hardware interdiction program. The NSA intercepts computer equipment to install hardware/software backdoors. The DEA’s vacuum camera possibly could be stashed in a Shop Vac en route to a targeted person/business. Either that or a DEA agent/informant is going to pretend to be a janitor and wheel around a loaded Shop Vac to capture footage.

It’s weird but it’s pretty much in line with the DEA’s procurement history. A report from Quartz last month showed the DEA was buying cameras concealed in streetlights, traffic barrels, and speed-display road signs. The last one on the list doesn’t house ordinary cameras, but rather automated license plate readers.

Are there Constitutional concerns? Sure. They’re pretty minimal in areas where any activity could be observed by a member of the public. But they’re not nonexistent. And much of this surveillance activity occurs with the silent blessing of the city governments that own the repurposed streetlights. The government has occasionally pushed for upgraded streetlight systems, with the main “improvement” being the addition of surveillance devices.

Chad Marlow, a senior advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, says efforts to put cameras in street lights have been proposed before by local law enforcement, typically as part of a “smart” LED street light system.

“It basically has the ability to turn every streetlight into a surveillance device, which is very Orwellian to say the least,” Marlow told Quartz. “In most jurisdictions, the local police or department of public works are authorized to make these decisions unilaterally and in secret. There’s no public debate or oversight.”

The Shop Vac+camera is more problematic. Vacuums are typically used in areas not readily visible to the public. This narc vac deployment hopefully comes with a warrant attached. Someone consenting to having an area vacuumed isn’t the same as consenting to a search. This device can do both at the same time, which would appear to be a Fourth Amendment issue if there’s no accompanying paperwork.

Of course, it could be argued allowing someone like a DEA agent/informant into a private area is tacit consent to be searched. After all, anything seen by the camera would be seen by its operator. Anything illegal observed by this third party could be reported to law enforcement. Utilizing a camera as another set of eyes doesn’t undercut this Fourth Amendment end-around. (If it’s a DEA informant deploying the vacu-cam, the government can’t claim it was a private search, so there’s that…) The best solution is don’t do illegal stuff where it can be observed by anyone — or anything — you don’t know inside and out.

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for this tactic to be discussed in court. There’s nothing particularly secretive about the tech angle, especially when there’s publicly-available acquisition documents directly referencing both the mean and the method. But I’m sure the DEA will still argue discussing a camera in a Shop Vac in open court will jeopardize future/ongoing investigations. However this procurement pans out, it’s probably safe to say more than a few pieces of cleaning equipment underwent exploratory disassembly following the publication of the DEA’s acquisition

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “When Not Hiding Cameras In Traffic Barrels And Streetlights, The DEA Is Shoving Them Into… Vacuums?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
24 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

a honeypot perhaps?

Maybe part of the idea is that leaving some “bugged” household appliance on the curb for trash pickup might possibly be seen and taken inside by some drug dealer or other criminal whose house was being targeted by police. If someone helps himself to such curbside trash thinking it was put there by a neighbor (but it was really a police recording device) have the police conducted an illegal wiretap when the targeted suspect voluntarily takes it into his home?

Anonymous Coward says:

Angle not considered

Yes, the Constitutional concerns might be reduced if the camera vacuum is operated by a DEA agent or informant, since, as discussed above, that person might well report the crime even without the camera present. However, there are much more notable concerns when the camera vacuum is operated by a party who would not knowingly collect or report this data. Suppose that the DEA infiltrated the maintenance department of a professional cleaning company and began modifying the company’s vacuums, without the knowledge or consent of anyone associated with the company. The Constitutional question then hinges on whether the cleaning staff sent to client sites would (1) recognize illegal activity and (2) report it. If the defense can credibly argue that the crime would not have been discovered absent the camera, that raises interesting Constitutional questions around surveillance of restricted areas.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Best Solution

> The best solution is don’t do illegal stuff where it can
> be observed by anyone — or anything — you don’t know
> inside and out.

Really, Tim? How about the *best* solution being “not doing illegal stuff at all”?

The more I read from you, I really get the impression that your hate-on for cops doesn’t stem from the frequent overreach of law enforcement, but rather you don’t just like the idea of having to obey laws and rules at all.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Best Solution

Would having more just laws justify having cops routinely killing unarmed innocent people?

And let’s not forget all those “welfare” checks that cops routinely perform at the request of concerned family members, home visits that often end up with the person being shot and killed. That’s not even “law” enforcement, as no laws are broken or being enforced when a guy reaches into his pocket in response to being confronted by a cop (or even immediately afterward when he gets turned into hamburger meat).

JMT (profile) says:

Re: Best Solution

"…I really get the impression that your hate-on for cops doesn’t stem from the frequent overreach of law enforcement, but rather you don’t just like the idea of having to obey laws and rules at all."

It doesn’t take many brain cells to see the common theme in Tim’s writing. It’s when law enforcement doesn’t like the idea of having to obey laws and rules at all.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Best Solution

It’s when law enforcement doesn’t like the idea of
> having to obey laws and rules at all.

That’s not the implication of comments like this: “The best solution is don’t do illegal stuff where it can be observed by anyone — or anything — you don’t know inside and out.”

That suggests he’s all for breaking the law and just doesn’t like law enforcement finding ways to catch people who do it.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Best Solution

Or … maybe he is saying that some laws make no sense
> and therefore are not worth adhering to

Nope. He didn’t qualify it the way you did. He didn’t say ‘some’. He said the “The best solution is don’t do illegal stuff where it can be observed…”

That clearly indicates he has no problem with illegal activity, full stop, and is just advising people to do it where they won’t get caught.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Best Solution

The more I read from you, I really get the impression that your hate-on for cops doesn’t stem from the frequent overreach of law enforcement, but rather you don’t just like the idea of having to obey laws and rules at all.

That’s kind of implicit in the blatant Libertarian ideology he makes no attempt to conceal. That’s the very core of what Libertarianism is: "I don’t want to and you can’t make me!" It’s the "philosophy" of the five-year-old dressed up in sophisticated words to make it appear more palatable to adults capable of moral reasoning.

JoeCool (profile) says:

More likely

Either that or a DEA agent/informant is going to pretend to be a janitor and wheel around a loaded Shop Vac to capture footage.

Or, knowing the DEA, they’ll swap out one on a real janitor without them knowing, and then wash their hands of the matter when someone ends up dead. "Sorry we got your husband killed, but we were after bad guys. If it’s any consolation, we now have them for murder, too."

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...