How to Report Back


Report Back is a distributed research tool built by EFF with support from University of Nevada, Reno Reynolds School of Journalism. If you have any questions or suggestions, please email Dave Maass at dm@eff.org

1. Get an assignment 

To get an assignment you will need to enter two pieces of information: your email address and a “group code” provided by your instructor. Without these, you will not be able to access an assignment. 

You can filter the available assignment by state or technology, depending on whether you have been assigned a particular topic by your instructor. 

Once you hit the “Get Task” button, you will be forwarded to a page with the assignment. You will also receive a copy of the assignment via email.

If you have a link that you found on your own that you would like to submit, just select “Free Submit” in the Technology drop-down menu. 

2. Research your assignment  

The assignments in Report Back vary. Generally they will fall into a few categories: 

Most research assignments using Report Back require you to find documentation of surveillance technology that already exists on the internet. This may include news articles, press releases, public records, or presentations. 

As a general rule, you should not spend more than 30 minutes doing research. After that, proceed to step 3. 

3. Report back

After you’ve completed your research, come back to the Report Back tool and file the information you have found your online research using the Google form link. Even if you did not find any information after a thorough search, you should still fill out the form.  

Once you’re done, just click the button to get the next assignment.

Collecting and Summarizing Your Research 

As you conduct your research, you will find that quality of the information varies widely. Sometimes, you will get lucky and there will be one news article or web page that tells you everything you need to know. Other times, you may just find a passing message of the surveillance technology in an article or government document. Sometimes, you will find hundreds of pages of public records and you may feel overwhelmed with information. 

Rule of Thumb: 1-3 Short(ish) Sentences 

With Report Back, we're not looking for an essay. We're not even looking for a medium-sized paragraph. For the information to be useful, it should be as concise as possible. You should summarize the basics and avoid the urge of including every piece of interesting information (and a lot will be interesting). 

6 Questions to Ask and Answer

When reviewing articles and documents you find online, it's help to think of it as "interrogating" the information. You're asking interviewing the records, demanding information from it. Some questions to ask: 

1) Yes/No: Does the agency have the technology? This is the most important question. We're looking for a yes/no: do they have it? However, sometimes you might only find an article that they are "considering" it, or it has "been proposed"? If that's the only information that comes up, we still want to know about it. 

2) Time: When did the agency acquire the technology or when did it most recently upgrade the technology? It's good to be able to put a time peg on the research. Sometimes you will be able to say when they started the program, other times you will be able to say when the most recent expansion occured. At the very least, it is help to be able to say, here's what we know "As of [XXXX Year]." 

3) Quantity: How many devices did they purchase? Often an article will tell you exactly how many units of the surveillance technologies they purchased. For example, maybe the police department purchased 300 body-worn cameras. Or maybe they bought 20 stationary automated license plate readers and 10 mobile license plate readers? Or maybe they disclose that there are surveillance cameras at 30 intersections around town. 

4) Cost: how much did they spend on the technology? Sometimes the document will tell you exactly how much the program costs. Sometimes they will disclose that the money came through a particular grant, such as asset forfeiture or Operation Stonegarden, a controversial program that funds local police to work on border security issues. 

5) What brand is the technology or what vendor sold it to them? It can be very useful to know what brand the technology is. For example, Axon has a large portion of the body-worn camera market and Vigilant Solutions is one of the most common sellers of automated license plate readers. 

6) How do they plan to use the technology? Government agencies often have specific intentions for the technology, such as combatting gun violence, stopping illegal dumping, or dealing with an automobile theft epidemic. It can be useful to include this information. Be careful, though: sometimes these claims are more spin than reality. 

You may not find all of the answers to these questions in your research, but if you can at least answer 1), then you've achieved the goal. 

Summary Examples 

Case #1: Low quality documentation 

Let's say that your research turned up very little. Maybe the technology is mentioned only in passing in a government document or in a news article, but there's no further context. You've tried to find more information, but come up empty handed. Don't worry! You can still write a sentence summarizing your findings. For example, these one-sentence summaries would still be useful. 

Rando-City Police Department equips its officers with body-worn cameras, according to a job description posted in 2017. 

An arrest report posted on the Fictional County Sheriff's Office website indicates deputies use automated license plate readers. 

A line item in the Town of Anywhere's 2016 budget indicates that the police department purchased a drone. 

Case #2: The perfect amount of documentation 

Let's say that you found exactly what you were looking for: 2-3 articles that answer all six questions above. We do not need six sentences, but rather just the most interesting points. You can still write a single sentence, but feel free to write up to three sentences, but keep them short. No extended clauses. Here are some summary examples: 

The Rando-City Police Department purchased 150 Axon Flex cameras in 2017 through a $40,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Only police in the downtown area use the cameras, and they are required to record all interactions with the public. 

The Fictional County Sheriff's Office purchased Starchase technology, which allows officers to launch small GPS devices from the front of their patrol vehicles. The technology is intended to reduce high-speed car chases. Deputies deployed Starchase devices in 12 cases in 2018. 

The Anywhere Police Department launched its unmanned aerial vehicle program in 2015. APD has five DJI drones, which it deploys in emergency situations, but its policy prohibits pilots from using the drones to surveil marches and protests. 

Case #3: Way too much information

You might find yourself swimming in thousands of pages of documents. Don't waste your time reading them all. Give them a skim, looking for summaries or presentations that outline the key points. If there is a particular document that, while long, has a lot of useful information, you should go ahead and describe in your summary. 

The Rando-City Police Department created a citywide camera network in 2018, which feeds into a $2.5-million real-time crime center staffed round-the-clock. A dataset and map of all the installations of the cameras is available through the RCPD's website. 

The Fictional County Sheriff's Office has used cell-site simulators since 2010 to investigate murders, drug trafficking, and missing persons cases. In 2018, the Fictional Police Accountability Project released 10,000 pages of documents revealing controverial emails and contracting documents with the vendor, Harris Corp. 

The Anywhere Police Department provides officers with handheld devices that can be used for face recognition. In 2018, 25 police officers ran 2,400 face recognition scans. A database of all cases where police used the technology before initiating an arrest is available online through the Anywhere City Open Data Portal.