Spread across four computer monitors arranged in a grid, a blue and green interface shows the location of more than 50 different surveillance cameras. Ordinarily, these cameras and others like them might be disparate, their feeds only available to their respective owners: a business, a government building, a resident and their doorbell camera. But the screens, overlooking a pair of long conference tables, bring them all together at once, allowing law enforcement to tap into cameras owned by different entities around the entire town all at once.
This is a demonstration of Fusus, an AI-powered system that is rapidly springing up across small town America and major cities alike. Fusus’ product not only funnels live feeds from usually siloed cameras into one central location, but also adds the ability to scan for people wearing certain clothes, carrying a particular bag, or look for a certain vehicle.
404 Media has obtained a cache of internal emails, presentations, memos, photos, and more which provide insight into how Fusus teams up with police departments to sell its surveillance technology. All around the country, city councils are debating whether they want to have a system that qualitatively changes what surveillance cameras mean for a town’s residents and public agencies. While many have adopted Fusus, others have pushed back, and refused to have the hardware and software installed in their neighborhoods.
In some ways, Fusus is deploying smart camera technology that historically has been used in places like South Africa, where experts warned about it creating an ever present blanket of surveillance. Now, tech with some of the same capabilities is being used across small town America.
Rather than selling cameras themselves, Fusus’ hardware and software latches onto existing installations, which can include government-owned surveillance cameras as well as privately owned cameras at businesses and homes. It turns dumb cameras into smart ones. “In essence, the Fusus solution puts a brain into every camera connected with the system,” one memorandum obtained by 404 Media reads.
“The lack of transparency and community conversation around Fusus exacerbates concerns around police access of the system, AI analysis of video, and analytics involving surveillance and crime data, which can influence officer patrols and priorities,” Beryl Lipton, investigative researcher at activist organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told 404 Media in an email. “In the absence of clear policies, auditable access logs, and community transparency about the capabilities and costs of Fusus, any community in which this technology is adopted should be concerned about its use and abuse.” 404 Media obtained the documents through voluminous public records requests with law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. Lipton previously carried out a similar project for the EFF.
One agency that provided a large number of records to 404 Media was Starkville Police Department in Mississippi. As Fusus and the college town agency worked together throughout 2021, they discussed camera placements at student apartment buildings, a storage business, multiple street cameras, inside a parking garage, and an upscale rental community. In one email, a Fusus network support engineer asked Sergeant G. Brandon Lovelady, Starkville PD’s public information officer, if he could go to one of the student apartment buildings to gather floor plans of the complex to assist with camera placement. After some technical hitches and paying their ISP an additional cost in order to properly configure the cameras, Starkville PD started to receive participating camera feeds, according to multiple emails. Fusus prices vary from $25,000 to $100,000 a year, according to the documents.
“So far the response has been amazing. We’ve had, specifically, the response from the business community has been there because I think that people that are in this industry and in the business industry know economic development and public safety go hand in hand,” Starkville PD chief of police Mark Ballard said on an episode of Fusus’ podcast published in March. “Our school systems, our churches, our places of worship, our kindergartens, they’re all on board and becoming video-savvy and a part of the system,” he added.