Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters

Promotional materials for private spy companies show that mass surveillance technology is being sold to police departments as a way to monitor dissent

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A number of private spying companies offer services to help police keep tabs on individual protesters' tweets and Facebook posts.
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The documents leaked to media outlets by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden this year have brought national intelligence gathering and surveillance operations under a level of scrutiny not seen in decades. Often left out of this conversation, though, is the massive private surveillance industry that provides services to law enforcement, defense agencies and corporations in the U.S. and abroad – a sprawling constellation of companies and municipalities. "It's a circle where everyone [in these industries] is benefitting," says Eric King, lead researcher of watchdog group Privacy International. "Everyone gets more powerful, and richer."

Promotional materials for numerous private spy companies boast of how law enforcement organizations can use their products to monitor people at protests or other large crowds – including by keeping tabs on individual people's social media presence. Kenneth Lipp, a journalist who attended the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Philadelphia from October 19th to 23rd, tells Rolling Stone that monitoring Twitter and Facebook was a main theme of the week. "Social media was the buzzword," says Lipp. He says much of the discussion seemed to be aimed at designing policies that wouldn't trigger potentially limiting court cases: "They want to avoid a warrant standard."

See What Sen. Ron Wyden Had to Say About NSA Surveillance in Our Q&A

While the specifics of which police departments utilize what surveillance technologies is often unclear, there is evidence to suggest that use of mass surveillance against individuals not under direct investigation is common. "The default is mass surveillance, the same as NSA's 'collect it all' mindset," says King. "There's not a single company that if you installed their product, [it] would comply with what anyone without a security clearance would think is appropriate, lawful use."

The YouTube page for a company called NICE, for instance, features a highly produced video showing how its products can be used in the event of a protest. "The NICE video analytic suite alerts on an unusually high occupancy level in a city center," a narrator says as the camera zooms in on people chanting and holding signs that read "clean air" and "stop it now." The video then shows authorities redirecting traffic to avoid a bottleneck, and promises that all audio and video from the event will be captured and processed almost immediately. "The entire event is then reconstructed on a chronological timeline, based on all multimedia sources," says the narrator. According to an interview with the head of NICE's security division published in Israel Gateway, NICE systems are used by New Jersey Transit and at the Statue of Liberty, though it isn't clear if they are the same products shown in the video.

"Thousands of customers worldwide use NICE Security solutions to keep people safe and protect property," says Sara Preto, a spokesperson for NICE. She declined to confirm any specific clients, but added: "We work with law enforcement and other government agencies within the framework of all relevant and national laws."

Another program, made by Bright Planet and called BlueJay, is billed in a brochure to law enforcement as a "Twitter crime scanner." BlueJay allows cops to covertly monitor accounts and hashtags; three that Bright Planet touts in promotional material are #gunfire, #meth, and #protest. In another promotional document, the company says BlueJay can "monitor large public events, social unrest, gang communications, and criminally predicated individuals," as well as "track department mentions." Bright Planet did not respond to a request for comment.

A third company, 3i:Mind, lays out a scenario for a potential law enforcement client that begins: "Perhaps you are tracking an upcoming political rally." It continues:

Once you set up the OpenMIND™ system to profile and monitor the rally, it will search the web for the event on web pages, social networking sites, blogs, forums and so forth, looking for information about the nature of the rally (e.g. peaceful, violent, participant demographics), try to identify both online and physical world activist leaders and collect information about them, monitor the event in real-time and alert you on user-defined critical developments.

The scenario concludes: "Your insight is distributed to the local police force warning them that the political rally may turn violent and potentially thwarting the violence before it occurs." The 3i:Mind website gives no clues at to which governments or corporations use their products, and public information on the company is limited, though they have reportedly shown their product at various trade shows and police conferences. The company didn't respond to a request for comment.

Other companies are less upfront about how their products can be used to monitor social unrest. A product that will be familiar to anyone who attended an Occupy Wall Street protest in or around New York's Zuccotti Park is SkyWatch, by FLIR, pointed out to Rolling Stone by Lipp, the journalist who attended the police conference. SkyWatch is a mobile tower in the form of a two-person cab that can be raised two stories high to provide "an array of surveillance options," according to a promotional brochure. Those options include cameras and radar, as well as "customizable" options. The brochure says SkyWatch is perfect for "fluid operations whether on the front lines or at a hometown event." As of this writing, the NYPD still has a SkyWatch deployed in a corner of Zuccotti Park, where Occupy activists were evicted by the police nearly two years ago.

These promotional materials, taken together, paint a picture not only of local police forces becoming increasingly militarized, but also suggest departments are venturing into intelligence-gathering operations that may go well beyond traditional law enforcement mandates. "Two things make today's surveillance particularly dangerous: the flood of 'homeland security' dollars (in the hundreds of millions) to state and local police for the purchase of spying technologies, and the fact that spook technology is outpacing privacy law," says Kade Crockford, director of the Massachusetts ACLU's technology for liberty program and the writer of the PrivacySOS blog, which covers these issues closely. "Flush with fancy new equipment, police turn to communities they have long spied on and infiltrated: low-income and communities of color, and dissident communities."

Many of the legal questions surrounding these kinds of police tactics remain unsettled, according to Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security program at New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice. Information that is publicly available, like tweets and Facebook posts, is generally not protected by the Fourth Amendment, though legal questions may arise if that information is aggregated on a large scale – especially if that collection is based on political, religious or ethnic grounds. "This information can be useful, but it can also be used in ways that violate the Constitution," says Patel. "The question is: what are [police departments] using it for?"

Rolling Stone contacted police departments for the cities of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. for comment on this story.

"The Philadelphia Police Department has their own cameras," says that force's spokesperson Jillian Russell. "The department does not have private surveillance companies monitor crime." She directed follow-up questions about software used to process big data to a deputy mayor's office, who didn't return a phone call asking for comment.

When asked if the LAPD uses programs to monitor protesters, a media relations email account sent an unsigned message that simply read: "We are not aware of this."

The other police departments did not respond to requests for comment.