Motorola, known for cellphones, is fast becoming a major player in government surveillance and artificial intelligence

Motorola Solutions is among the tech firms racing to deliver new ways of monitoring the public.
Gif illustration of moving surveillance cameras with Motorola logos in the eyes.
Motorola Solutions has invested in powerful surveillance tools, including automated license plate readers, police body cameras equipped with appearance-detection technology and security cameras that can find people.Erik Carter / for NBC News

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By Jon Schuppe

The surveillance tools have been installed in schools and public housing, deployed on roads and public transit, and worn by police officers.

They’ve been developed by an array of technology firms competing for government business.

And many are now owned by a company seeking to grab a bigger piece of a booming market.

Motorola, a brand typically associated with cellphones and police radios, has joined the race among tech firms to deliver new ways of monitoring the public.

Since 2017, the Chicago-based tech company — now known as Motorola Solutions, after Motorola Inc. spun off its mobile phone business — has invested $1.7 billion to support or acquire companies that build police body cameras; train cameras to spot certain faces or behavior; sift through video for suspicious people; and track the movement of cars by their license plates. By consolidating these tools within a single corporation, and potentially combining them into a single product, Motorola Solutions is boosting its stature in the surveillance industry ─ and amplifying concerns about the government’s growing power to watch people almost anywhere they go.

“Your privacy is more protected when information about you is scattered among agencies and entities. When all that is unified under one roof, that sharpens the privacy issues,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, where he researches technology’s impact on privacy. “I don’t know exactly what kind of synergies a company like Motorola Solutions might get from assembling all these pieces, but in general it’s a scary prospect.”

A Vigilant Solutions camera that scans license plates. Motorola Solutions now owns the company. Vigilant Solutions

Motorola Solutions did not make executives available to answer questions about its acquisitions or plans for them. The company provided a statement that described its plan to add artificial intelligence products, including object detection and “unusual motion detection,” to a package it sells to public safety agencies. The systems can help flag a potential trespasser or the appearance of smoke, the company said. The company emphasized that the new tools are not meant to make automatic policing decisions but to help officers decide how to act.

Stanley first noticed signs of Motorola Solutions’ new direction while walking through the exhibition hall at the International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference two years ago. In a blog post about his visit, he included a photo of a Motorola Solutions booth promoting its new line of police body cameras alongside new ways of analyzing video.

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Motorola Solutions’ move into high-tech surveillance hasn’t attracted much scrutiny from privacy researchers. But that is changing as the company continues to assemble powerful surveillance tools.

They include:

  • Police body cameras that learn what people look like: In 2017, Motorola Solutions invested in — and partnered with — a Boston artificial intelligence startup called Neurala to develop police body cameras that can search in real time for people or objects based on their appearances. Motorola Solutions says the partnership was limited to "early technology feasibility studies, prototypes and customer research." In July 2019, Motorola Solutions acquired WatchGuard, a Texas body-camera maker, which will help it add to its existing line of body cameras.
  • Surveillance cameras that can track people's movements: In March 2018, Motorola Solutions acquired Avigilon, a Canadian company that sells surveillance cameras along with software to scan footage for a particular person or vehicle. Avigilon has contracts to provide these artificial intelligence-driven applications to several school districts, including Wilson County, Tennessee; Fulton County, Georgia; and Broward County, Florida. Clients also include the New Bedford Housing Authority in Massachusetts, the Elk Grove Police Department in California and the city of Berkeley, California, according to Avigilon’s promotional materials, public contract documents and interviews with local government officials.
  • Automated license plate readers: In January, Motorola Solutions bought VaaS International Holdings, owner of California-based Vigilant Solutions, which works with government agencies, including hundreds of police departments in the United States and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to collect and share data on the location of cars captured by its automated license plate readers. VaaS also owns Digital Recognition Network, which shares license plate reader data with private companies, including car-repossession agents.

In an Aug. 1 conference call with stock market analysts, Motorola Solutions Chairman and CEO Greg Brown described how his company has combined these technologies into suites of products, with a particular focus on police and schools.

“We’re about building platforms,” Brown said. “It’s not just video. … It’s the storage, it’s the management, it’s the analytics, it’s the machine learning and the AI that take all of that end-to-end experience and provide use cases around specific verticals to differentiate. This is a hot market.”

This strategy isn’t unique to Motorola Solutions. Much bigger players in the surveillance market, including Amazon, Microsoft and IBM, have expanded their holdings in artificial intelligence companies. So have rising competitors like Axon, formerly known as Taser, which has become the nation’s largest provider of police body cameras and is exploring new uses of artificial intelligence. (It established an ethics board for advice on how to develop these technologies.)

Using artificial intelligence to analyze footage from the nation’s ever-growing networks of surveillance cameras helps police agencies do their jobs more efficiently — it saves time sifting for evidence, and allows easy redaction of people’s faces from footage that is released to the public. Authorities now use facial recognition to identify suspects in all kinds of crimes, from murder to shoplifting. License plate readers have been used to recover stolen cars, solve drive-by shootings and track down serial burglars, police say.

Among the fastest growing surveillance markets are public schools. Motorola Solutions has taken advantage of that trend, with Avigilon winning about a dozen contracts over the last two years to install state-of-the-art video networks. Buyers include Wilson County Schools in Tennessee, which outfitted two of its newest schools with cameras that can automatically track people through rooms and hallways based on their appearance.

Avigilon Appearance Search technology allows users to search for a person by selecting physical descriptions, including hair and clothing color, gender and age.Avigilon

“Whatever tools are available to provide a safe environment for our students and staff I think it’s our obligation to explore,” said Mickey Hall, Wilson County Schools’ deputy director.

The next time the district builds a school, Hall said, it may include systems that read the license plates of all cars that drive past, and that identify visitors by their faces.

But the technology also raises the risk of the government and private corporations amassing too much power to peer into people’s lives, Stanley, of the ACLU, said. Once a person is targeted for this kind of surveillance, whether they are suspected in a crime, hold unpopular political views or have been mistaken for someone else, authorities can examine where they’ve been and may find something incriminating, Stanley said.

“It turns scattered cameras into mass surveillance machines that allow companies and agencies to use them to rewind someone’s life,” he said.

Keith Housum, an analyst who follows Motorola Solutions at the equity research firm Northcoast Research, said its recent surveillance-related acquisitions comprise a small fraction of the company’s operations but have helped boost its stock price, as investors see it as pursuing new revenue sources.

“AI is very important to their product portfolio because so much information is being gathered, so much video is being recorded, that there’s no way you can go through it with the naked eye,” Housum said, adding, “It’s where the new future is going to be.”

Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for limits on government surveillance and has documented law enforcement’s widespread sharing of data collected by Vigilant Solutions’ license plate readers, said he’d like to see more local governments pass ordinances requiring deeper public scrutiny of the technology.

He also said Motorola Solutions should follow other companies, including Axon and Microsoft, in seeking ways to make sure their products are used responsibility by their customers. Axon has pledged not to outfit its body cameras with facial recognition technology, and Microsoft President Brad Smith has said his company won’t sell facial recognition to governments for use in mass surveillance.

“There's a potential for positive change if Motorola decides to reform Vigilant as it incorporates it into its other business. However, the merging of all these technologies underlines that surveillance is big business,” Maass said in an email. “And it's important to ensure that decisions about surveillance in our society aren’t driven by sales and profit, but by what the community actually wants and needs.”