How Data Is Used to Ensnare People

Janine Jackson: Employees of the Department of Homeland Security received tips from leadership about how to protect themselves while in public, saying they may face a heightened threat as more and more people protest the cruel and malicious treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers at the Mexican border. From DHS head Kirstjen Nielsen being heckled out of a restaurant, to protesters in Portland blockading the entrance to the ICE office there — a tactic spreading now to other cities — to the city of Sacramento saying they would no longer be used as a warehouse for ICE detainees, acts of defiance are growing.

But as some are trying to disassociate from the enforcers of the White House’s inhumane and racist agenda, some big-name companies are moving in the opposite direction, quietly contracting with federal agencies for millions of dollars, in some cases enabling some of the most distressing programs and tactics. And that’s just the ones we know about.

Our next guest works to bring some daylight to these shadowy things. Organizer and advocate Tracy Rosenberg is executive director of Media Alliance, and co-coordinator of the group Oakland Privacy. She joins us now by phone from Oakland. Welcome to CounterSpin, Tracy Rosenberg.

Tracy Rosenberg: Much thanks. I’m glad to be here.

It was heartening to me that people were not lulled by Trump’s rescinding of the order on family separation. They see that the wrongs here are deeper and bigger, and that this policy is hydra-headed, as it were. But as some of what ICE does is exposed, much is still shadowy by design, including collaborations with big tech, and even media companies, that are trying to show a very different public face. I wanted to ask you first about something that you wrote about last fall, that I know is going to surprise many listeners: a relationship between ICE and Reuters?

Yeah; I’m glad that you used the word “hydra-headed,” Janine, because in the surveillance and privacy work that I’ve been doing for the past couple of years, it is in fact hydra-headed. And you find things out all of the time, and one of the things that I happened to stumble across, about nine or ten months ago, was a history of large contracts between the parent company of Reuters journalism, which is of course one of the biggest press agencies in the world, and ICE, that consisted largely of providing information services from the parent company to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, in the form of a database called CLEAR.

And what is that? What does CLEAR do?

CLEAR is one of the largest consumer information databases. Basically, it correlates all kinds of personal information about people — addresses, credit records, employment records, real estate records — and puts them together in a package. And essentially this vast database of personal information is now available to ICE. It includes telephone records, license plates, really a comprehensive portrait of a person’s life.

And, indeed, the contract makes it clear, they don’t hedge it, they say, we’re trying “to locate, arrest and remove criminal aliens that pose a threat to public safety.” I mean, that, as I understand, is right there in the contract that, in this case, Thomson Reuters has signed up for.

That’s correct. The contract specifically is with Enforcement and Removal Operations, which is Trump’s deportation army, and its purpose is to help them identify, find and locate people.

So the question here is, as a journalist who works for an agency like Reuters, and reports on immigration policy, there’s a certain sort of basic compromise that occurs here, both in terms of what you can say, and whether your right hand and your left hand, as it were, are operating in the same direction. The piece was called “Sanctuary Journalism,” because we thought that for media outlets that are really serving communities that are sanctuary jurisdictions, there’s an issue here, and it’s not small.

Right, and there’s a basic conflict that I think more and more people are seeing, including employees within some of these entities. Amazon, for example, whose facial recognition software is heavily marketed to law enforcement and government. Those workers have just sent, some of them, a letter, saying bluntly, “We refuse to build the platform that powers ICE and we refuse to contribute to tools that violate human rights.” So there’s pushback happening, it seems like — because it’s clear from the Amazon example, which is about ICE, but this use of data to ensnare people, it’s not just about immigrants, of course.

Right. What I wanted to say is that, basically, this is broad. Google employees have done the same things. We’re now finding a number of nonprofits that work in childcare services that have signed contracts with ICE to run these unaccompanied–well–separated minor camps, like Southwest Key, which was funded by a number of progressive foundations, and has been literally operating detention camps for children who have been forcibly separated from their families. So what we have, as you said, is this sort of hydra-headed web, in which so many of us are finding that we’ve been complicit.

When we say it’s broader than immigration, and it’s about use of surveillance by a number of law enforcement agencies, I know that it’s a national problem, but you work very locally as well, and I just wonder if you could just tell us some of the things that you found out, I think it’s a fascinating story, about the license plate readers?

Well, we argue for local action. And the reason for that is when all of this Snowden revelations came out years ago, I, like many other people, and in my own work as a telecom advocate, I really saw online surveillance and spying as a huge problem; that’s sort of how I got into this venue.

It’s like, “What are we going to do? Is ‘Occupy the NSA’ a realistic strategy?” And the answer there is “No.” So the question became, “What can we really do in our own homes and our own communities?” So we started to investigate the links, like, “Where is the information traveling, how is it being collected, where is it being stored, and who has access to it?” And once you open that Pandora’s box, a lot of stuff comes falling out.

On license plate readers, these are sort of ubiquitous. In the past decade, they really have been set up in probably the majority of cities and counties in the US. And they take a photograph of the front of a car — they’re usually pole-mounted on traffic lights — as it goes by. And, essentially, if you are one of those people who happens to drive back and forth, every single day, past one of these, it can geolocate you in time and space, based on your license plate, on a fairly regular basis.

For people who live in cities that are inundated with these things, and the data is kept for one year, five years, ten years, it really can provide a pattern of your daily activities. And that can include things like parking lots of mosques, or cannabis clinics, or buildings with immigration lawyer offices, or political meetings of various kinds, Black Lives Matter meetings. There are all kinds of ways in which geolocating people can give you all kinds of information about what they are doing. And when we’re talking about actions of dissidents or political activities or immigration status, these can become ways to hunt, track and profile and capture people. When it comes to license plate readers, the ubiquity of them really opened up the question of, who has access to this data, where is it stored, is it secure, and what are the limitations in terms of how it’s used?

And the answer to that, unfortunately, as we sort of dug in, became, “Well, there’s not really a policy, and if there is one, it says you can use it for any legitimate law enforcement purpose. And really, any agency can ask us for the data, and we’ll send it to them, because that would only be the civil thing with any other law enforcement agency.”

And basically there were no rules. Work that we did basically involved, well, let’s pluck this stuff out. Let’s find out how many license plates, where are they, who are they shared with? And secondly, let’s start talking about what the policy is — or what it should be — because obviously the machines are there. We can’t take them off the traffic poles. Well, we can and we hope to, but that’s a long-term process.

Right.

But in the short-term, what can we do to define what’s the appropriate use of all this data — and there’s a lot of it — and what are the inappropriate uses and how are we going to have a public conversation about that?

And that starts with knowing that it’s happening. And that’s where I think I’d like to ask you about the Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project. One of the things that we most remember about Aaron Swartz, a kind of information activist who wanted to liberate information against powerful forces that were making money off it, in this case about scholarly publishing and JSTOR, but, really, part of the message was, if I can be crude, “Nerds can be activists, too!” There are lots of different ways to use information: that learning how your local government, how your local council works, how to move things off the consent calendar; these kinds of things can really be a way to change things, as they have been in Oakland, for example.

Yes, Aaron Swartz’s whole gig was, “Free the information and the power will come.” And I think that is largely something that we have learned and put into practice. And what we’ve also found is when you talk to city council members, the people who vote on things and authorize things, I don’t want to say nine times out of ten, but pretty darn frequently? They really have no idea how this all works.

And a lot of our work has been telling them, “We’ve done the research, this is what is going on in your city. Did you agree to this and do you want this to continue as it is, or do you want to step up here and do some legislating and do some policy work and pay attention?” Because most of this has gone on mostly underground. The cops do what the cops want to do, just like Microsoft employees and Amazon employees didn’t know, most of them from the ground, what their companies were doing, and when they found out, they were appalled.

In terms of the Aaron Swartz Project, what we’re largely trying to do is just sort of crowdsource this enormous project of getting down to the local details in every city and county. And we’re starting in California, and we hope to spread it across the whole country, which is, “Go and find this stuff out, we have FOIA, we have a public records act (in most states).”

We can get this information, and once we get this information, we have the ability to change the local conditions on the ground. And in Oakland, we have done that. We have a comprehensive surveillance ordinance in place. Nothing happens now without authorization, and we’re going to get regular, constant, steady reports. And we essentially have policy control based in the community, because the thing about mass bulk surveillance is, it’s collected on everybody,and it’s basically being held there on the off-chance that it might help with some criminal occurrence.

What we found, for example, in California, in Los Angeles, there was a lawsuit to get license plate-reader data from the LAPD, and what the LAPD said in court — this went all the way to the California Supreme Court — was, “We don’t have to release that data to you, because it’s evidence in a criminal proceeding.” And we said, “ A criminal proceeding on every single person who has driven through the city of Los Angeles for the past five years?” And they said, “Well, you know, it might be in some future case.”

And essentially what that means is, it is a premise that data collection goes on in order to convict us of a crime that has not yet happened, that we haven’t committed. And we need to turn that whole structure on its head, which is to say that data needs to serve a public safety purpose, or there is no reason to collect it. We can’t preemptively create a police state based on future crime. Can’t do it. That’s George Orwell.

Finally, NBC News recently did a piece picking up on some of what you wrote about last fall, about these corporate collaborations, and they mentioned Palantir, this company run by Facebook board member Peter Thiel, that runs this intelligence database that tracks immigrants’ records and relationships, called FALCON. And NBC described Palantir as “a data firm that tends to stay out of the press.” And then Facebook, no comment. Motorola, no comment. Power doesn’t want this information out there, so if we want to know about it, that’s just another argument for the importance of independent media, isn’t it?

Yes, my argument has always been — because you know it’s fair to say, “Well, what does transparency do? All it does is tell us the various ways in which we are being oppressed and tracked and hunted and profiled, but it doesn’t stop it.”

But the reality is, there’s such a battle being fought against transparency and it’s so unwanted, both by law enforcement, and tech and private vendors, and the whole military industrial complex that we have to deal with, because there is tremendous power in transparency.

Once it becomes clear, the scope of things, then a meaningful response of community control is possible. We can’t do it without transparency. So we have to start there, and fight for that to become the principle and then the boundaries, the constraints and the limitations become a political battle that we can fight and we can win.

We’ve been speaking with Tracy Rosenberg; she’s executive director of Media Alliance and co-coordinator of the group Oakland Privacy. Tracy Rosenberg, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you so much for having me.