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: cameras, dea, hidden cameras, surveillance, vacuum cleaners


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  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 11 Dec 2018 @ 12:10pm

    The best solution is don't do illegal stuff

    You could have just stopped there...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2018 @ 12:22pm

    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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2018 @ 12:38pm

      Re: a honeypot perhaps?

      Yes, that is an illegal search. It's no different from a mailed package, or a camera-monitoring smartphone app. With warrant, you don't need consent, without a warrant you need _informed_ consent.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2018 @ 1:17pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    btr1701 (profile), 11 Dec 2018 @ 2:08pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2018 @ 4:08pm

      Re: Best Solution

      Or perhaps his hate of cops stems from the fact the the very laws they enforce are often unjust.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2018 @ 6:50pm

        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).

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          anon, 12 Dec 2018 @ 4:44am

          Re: Re: Re: Best Solution

          yup,AC...y'all might check out the daily alerts from thefreethoughtproject.com
          They are eye-opening to a barf-a-bucketful degree...truly, what you don't know -will- hurt you.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Coyne Tibbets (profile), 11 Dec 2018 @ 7:28pm

        Re: Re: Best Solution

        Or perhaps he is critical of LEOs for the same reason I am, because of their penchant for to considering...just anywhere at all...to be their Constitution-optional, Rights-free dominion.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      JMT (profile), 11 Dec 2018 @ 7:27pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        btr1701 (profile), 12 Dec 2018 @ 7:43am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 12 Dec 2018 @ 9:01am

          Re: Re: Re: Best Solution

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

          Or ... maybe he is saying that some laws make no sense and therefore are not worth adhering to unless seen by the draconian self righteous.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            btr1701 (profile), 3 Jan 2019 @ 2:15pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mason Wheeler (profile), 12 Dec 2018 @ 12:58pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 11 Dec 2018 @ 2:15pm

    No problem at all

    The Shop Vac+camera is more problematic. Vacuums are typically used in areas not readily visible to the public.

    It's not problematic at all. A judicious application of parallel construction, and no one will ever guess there was a camera involved.

    Especially not those constitution-thumping judges.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JoeCool (profile), 11 Dec 2018 @ 4:21pm

    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."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Dec 2018 @ 4:46pm

    Cam placement upon a Roomba is problematic due to the cat.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 11 Dec 2018 @ 7:18pm

    Next up...

    DEA installing cameras in vibrators.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anon Y. Mouse, 11 Dec 2018 @ 10:19pm

    The real question for todays politically [in]correct world...

    Did the DEA obtain written consent from the
    vacuum before inserting the camera ???

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Dec 2018 @ 9:03am

    Wow - the DEA really sucks

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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