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Documenting Police Tech in Our Communities
with Open Source Research

Common police surveillance terms with real examples from across the United States


Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR)


Side-by-side images: Three ALPR cameras on a street light and a camera on a police car.

Fixed and mobile automated license plate readers. Photo by Mike Katz-Lacabe (CC-BY)

Automated license plate readers are cameras attached to fixed locations or to patrol cars that capture every license plate that passes. The data is uploaded to searchable databases with the time, date, and GPS coordinates.

Body-Worn Camera (BWC)


Two armed Tombstone Marshals with square Axon body-worn cameras in the center of their vests.
Axon body-worn cameras. Source: Tombstone Marshal's Office

Many law enforcement agencies require officers to attach body-worn cameras to their chests or shoulders to capture interactions with suspects and the public. Some cameras stream live and can be combined with face recognition technology.

Camera Registry

Logos for three police departments' camera registry programs

Some law enforcement agencies ask residents and businesses to voluntarily provide information about the security cameras they have installed on their properties. This is usually called a camera registry, and it is often integrated into other software packages, such as Motorola Solutions’ CityProtect suite.

Cell-Site Simulator (CSS)

A Harris Corporation cell-site simulator: a gray, unremarkable metal box with the Stingray logo.

A Harris Corporation Stingray II. Source: USPTO Records

Cell-site simulators, also known as Stingrays or IMSI catchers, are devices that masquerade as legitimate cell-phone towers, tricking phones within a certain radius into connecting to the device rather than a tower.


Crowdsourcing is a research technique that involves recruiting a large number of people, such as students, members of your supporter base or readership, to collaborate on a single project. 

Drone (UAV)

Two drones and their remote controls site on a table.

Source: Sahuarita Police Department

Drones are also known as unmanned aerial vehicles. Police remotely control these devices to surveil crowds from above or locations that would otherwise be difficult or dangerous to observe by a human on the ground.

Face Recognition (FR)

A police office sits at a computer comparing two mugshots with NEC software.

An Arizona Department of Transportation employee uses NEC face recognition software. Source: ADOT

Face recognition is a method of identifying or verifying the identity of an individual using their face. Face recognition systems can be used to identify people in photos, video, or in real-time. Law enforcement may also use mobile face recognition devices to identify people during police stops.

Fusion Center

A wall of computer monitors at the Kentucky Intelligence Fusion Center.

The Kentucky Intelligence Fusion Center. Source: Kentucky Department of Homeland Security

Fusion Centers are intelligence hubs and command centers that enable intelligence sharing between local, state, tribal, territorial, and federal agencies, with a focus on homeland security matters. These are part of a national fusion center system supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

Gunshot Detection

ShotSpotter gunshot detection software. Source: SEC Filings

Gunshot detection is a technology law enforcement uses to receive alerts on where gunfire may occur in neighborhoods. This technology relies on a series of acoustic sensors mounted on street lights or on the sides of buildings. When a loud noise triggers the sensors, software triangulates the estimated location of the gunfire.

Open-Source Intelligence

Open-source intelligence, or OSINT, is a term used to describe gathering information that already exists online—from news stories, social media posts, press releases, or documents buried in government websites, often turned up through using advanced search engine techniques.

Predictive Policing

A digital map showing several neighborhoods marked as being potential crime zones.

Predictive policing software. Source: Seattle Police Department

Predictive policing is software used by law enforcement to select neighborhoods or blocks where they should focus resources or to identify individuals for investigation. Law enforcement feed records and data—such as police stops or calls for service—into the algorithms, which vendors say can predict where crime is likely to occur.

Real-Time Crime Center (RTCC)

Several analysts sitting at work stations in the Fresno Real-Time Crime Center

Fresno Real-Time Crime Center. Source: Fresno Police Department

Real-Time Crime Centers are hubs where police ingest and analyze surveillance, intelligence, and data from a number of sources in real-time. RTCCs are often equipped with walls of monitors with live feeds from camera networks. Analysts are often able to access a wide variety of surveillance technologies, including automated license plate readers, gunshot detection, predictive policing, and face recognition. Unlike fusion centers, RTCCs tend to be focused on local level activities and a broader range of criminal investigations.

Third-party Investigative Platforms

Third-Party Investigative Platforms are cloud-based software systems that law enforcement agencies subscribe to in order to access, share, mine, and analyze various sources of investigative data. Some of the data the agencies upload themselves, but the systems also provide access to data from other law enforcement, as well as from commercial sources and data brokers. Many products offer AI features, such as pattern identification, face recognition, and predictive analytics. Some agencies employ multiple TPIPs.

Video Analytics/Computer Vision

A software program showing video of an intersection, with heavily trafficked areas highlighted
BriefCam video analytics software. Source: City of Coral Gables

Video analytics and computer vision are terms that surveillance companies use to describe advanced software applied to video feeds to identify the movements of people and objects and detect patterns and anomalies. It is often coupled with artificial intelligence/machine learning and face recognition technology.