Big Data Surveillance: The Case of Policing | Sarah Brayne


This article examines the intersection of two structural developments: the growth of surveillance and the rise of “big data.” Drawing on observations and interviews conducted within the Los Angeles Police Department, I offer an empirical account of how the adoption of big data analytics does—and does not—transform police surveillance practices. I argue that the adoption of big data analytics facilitates amplifications of prior surveillance practices and fundamental transformations in surveillance activities.

  1. First, discretionary assessments of risk are supplemented and quantified using risk scores.
  2. Second, data are used for predictive, rather than reactive or explanatory, purposes.
  3. Third, the proliferation of automatic alert systems makes it possible to systematically surveil an unprecedentedly large number of people.
  4. Fourth, the threshold for inclusion in law enforcement databases is lower, now including individuals who have not had direct police contact.
  5. Fifth, previously separate data systems are merged, facilitating the spread of surveillance into a wide range of institutions.

Based on these findings, I develop a theoretical model of big data surveillance that can be applied to institutional domains beyond the criminal justice system. Finally, I highlight the social consequences of big data surveillance for law and social inequality.


Through a case study of the Los Angeles Police Department, this article analyzed the role of big data in surveillance practices. By socially situating big data, I examined why it was adopted, how it is used, and what the implications of its use are. Focusing on the interplay between surveillance practices, law, and technology offers new insights into social control and inequality. I argued that big data participates in and reflects existing social structures. Far from eliminating human discretion and bias, big data represents a new form of capital that is both a social product and a social resource. What data law enforcement collects, their methods for analyzing and interpreting it, and the way it informs their practice are all part of a fundamentally social process. Characterizing predictive models as “just math,” and fetishizing computation as an objective process, obscures the social side of algorithmic decision-making. Individuals’ interpretation of data occurs in preexisting institutional, legal, and social settings, and it is through that interpretive process that power dynamics come into play. Use of big data has the potential to ameliorate discriminatory practices, but these findings suggest implementation is of paramount importance. As organizational theory and literature from science and technology studies suggests, when new technology is overlaid onto an old organizational structure, longstanding problems shape themselves to the contours of the new technology, and new unintended consequences are generated. The process of transforming individual actions into “objective” data raises fundamentally sociological questions that this research only begins to address. In many ways, it transposes classic concerns from the sociology of quantification about simplification, decontextualization, and the privileging of measurable complex social phenomena onto the big data landscape. Surveillance is always ambiguous; it is implicated in both social inclusion and exclusion, and it creates both opportunities and constraints. The way in which surveillance helps achieve organizational goals and structure life chances may differ according to the individuals and institutions involved. Examining the means of big data surveillance across institutional domains is an open and timely line of inquiry, because once a new technology is disseminated in an institutional setting, it is difficult to scale back.


  • Palantir
    • PredPol
    • Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR)
    • Automatic Vehicle Locator (AVL)
    • Enterprise Master Person Index (EMPI)
  • Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)
  • Big Data
  • risk scores
  • Smart Policiing Initiative
  • Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI)
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  • Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD)
  • Fusion Center
  • JRIC
  • Real-Time Crime Analysis Center (RACR)
  • Crime Intelligence Detail (CID)
  • Operation LASER (Los Angeles’ Strategic Extraction and Restoration
  • Parole Compliance Unit
  • Field Fnterview (FI)


  • surveillant assemblage
  • trigger mechanism
  • in the system (to be ‘in the system’)
  • net widening
  • decontextualization
(at least)
  • Deleuze
  • Guattari
  • Marx; no: not that guy; the other one.
  • Pasquale


intended for use in national defense, Palantir was initially partially funded by In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm. Palantir now has government and commercial customers, including the CIA, FBI, ICE, LAPD, NYPD, NSA, DHS, and J.P. Morgan. JRIC (the Southern California fusion center) started using Palantir in 2009, with the LAPD following shortly after. The use of Palantir has expanded rapidly through the Department, with regular training sessions and more divisions signing on each year. It has also spread throughout the greater L.A. region: in 2014, Palantir won the Request for Proposals to implement the statewide AB 109 administration program, which involves data integration and monitoring of the post-release community supervision population.</quote>

<quote>When I asked an officer to provide examples of why he stops people with high point values, he replied:

Yesterday this individual might have got stopped because he jaywalked. Today he mighta got stopped because he didn’t use his turn signal or whatever the case might be. So that’s two points . . . you could conduct an investigation or if something seems out of place you have your consensual stops.[7] So a pedestrian stop, this individual’s walking, “Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?” “Yeah what’s up?” You know, and then you just start filling out your card as he answers questions or whatever. And what it was telling us is who is out on the street, you know, who’s out there not neces- sarily maybe committing a crime but who’s active on the streets. You put the activity of . . . being in a street with maybe their violent background and one and one might create the next crime that’s gonna occur.



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