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Baltimore’s ‘Eye in the Sky’ Plane Is Back With A New Pitch: Surveil The Police

Dismal police accountability has made communities vulnerable to private vendors.

Persistent Surveillance Systems

Baltimore’s ‘Eye in the Sky’ Plane Is Back With A New Pitch: Surveil The Police

Dismal police accountability has made communities vulnerable to private vendors.

Throughout 2016, a surveillance plane flew above Baltimore recording large portions of the city in secret—until a Bloomberg Businessweek story exposed the plane that August and shocked the city’s residents.

The plane was equipped with a dozen cameras, flew 8,500 feet in the air, and recorded Baltimore at about 30 miles at a time, creating a permanent record of every person’s movements that could then be zoomed in, rewound, and fast-forwarded. While the resolution is low—each person is just a speck on a screen—the plane works in concert with other surveillance to assist in investigating crimes, especially homicides, according to its Ohio-based developer, former military technologist Ross McNutt.

While a spy plane recording everything for extended periods of 2016 without public knowledge was surprising enough, the details made it seem even more nefarious: The plane was funded by billionaire philanthropists in Houston, Laura and John Arnold, who made a donation to a nonprofit that could then funnel the money to police. The plane’s footage, owned by McNutt, was shared directly with police. Only McNutt, his technicians, its private funders, and the Baltimore police knew about the operation; even the mayor and City Council found out with the rest of the city, and the state’s attorney’s office learned of it just a week before the article appeared.

Now, McNutt wants to bring his plane back to Baltimore—with an unusual new pitch. He’s working with residents frustrated with a notoriously corrupt police force in a city that the FBI declared one of the nation’s most violent to drum up support for the surveillance plane’s return.

“We hold police accountable. We provide unbiased information as to police activities. We can go back in time and see what happened at the scene of an incident,” McNutt said at a recent public hearing. “Just as we can deter potential criminal misconduct, we can also deter potential police misconduct.”

At a moment when trust in Baltimore police is exceptionally low, the idea of high-tech accountability is enticing to some residents.

“We have a [police] department that’s in disarray,” resident Archie Williams told The Appeal.I’m tired; I’m fed up. I’m tired of depending on city leadership. … So I basically took this on myself and spread awareness as much as I could.”

Williams is a co-founder of Community With Solutions, an organization that supports the return of the surveillance plane because, he says, it will help solve homicides like the ones happening daily in his neighborhood. Baltimore is set to end 2018 with well over 300 homicides—for the fourth year in a row—while the homicide clearance rate hovers a little over 50 percent. McNutt has acknowledged that he has paid Williams a few thousand dollars.

Police accountability in Baltimore is particularly poor. A 2016 Department of Justice report released after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody was a lengthy list of police misconduct, dysfunction, racism, transphobia, and excessive force. The city is under a consent decree. Members of the city’s Civilian Review Board recently accused police of obstructing its ability to do its job. Suspicions were further inflamed by the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, in which eight police officers were federally indicted this year for robbing citizens, dealing drugs, and stealing overtime.

All of this has created a distrust in city officials that leaves communities more vulnerable to private vendors’ pitches. If the plane gets accepted in Baltimore, it could set a precedent to put the “eye in the sky” in more cities.

‘He’s a salesman’

Even before 2016’s secret flights in Baltimore, McNutt’s program received pushback from the communities it intended to surveil. In 2012, the plane flew secretly for nine days in Compton, California, without the citizens or government knowing; when it was revealed, it was roundly denounced. In 2013, it was proposed in Dayton, Ohio, home of McNutt’s Persistent Surveillance Systems, but a hearing brought widespread concerns and the plan for the plane died.

Once he realized community backlash was a major obstacle, McNutt began going directly to Baltimore residents to make his pitch in 2017. He brought presentations to churches, schools, recreation centers, and other public spaces. Williams attended a presentation in his neighborhood and has since become one of the most vocal supporters of the program. Since then, Williams has helped promote the plane, conducting over 30 presentations with McNutt around the city.

During a presentation in August, McNutt referred to his aerial surveillance program as the “Community Support Program”—the sunnier name he used interchangeably with Persistent Surveillance Systems in 2016. He and Williams argue that the footage could help defense attorneys as well as police.

“This is a tool, not necessarily just used to catch a criminal. But it also can prove that a criminal was innocent, so it helps both sides,” Williams told The Appeal, describing how he pitches the technology to Baltimore residents.

Baltimore City public defender Todd Oppenheim, whom McNutt gave a tour of the plane in 2016, does not think the footage collected would be that convincing or is even of particularly useful quality to aid criminal defense because “it’s just not that good.”

David Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland said McNutt’s technology would have little effect on catching or stopping police misconduct.

“I can’t think of a single incident of police misconduct in Baltimore where the key thing to be determined is what was the location of the officer, which is the only thing McNutt’s plane is good for,” Rocah said.

McNutt referenced footage the surveillance plane captured during its 2016 flights—a police shooting, a drug raid—that he believes could be used to police the police and assist citizens, though he did not provide The Appeal with the recordings.

“He’s a salesman,” Rocah said, one who is “playing off of the very real feeling and fears that people have in Baltimore as we watch a dysfunctional police department seemingly fall apart in front of our eyes.”

Oppenheim pointed out that this isn’t the first time surveillance technology has been hawked as a way to keep Baltimore police accountable. In an attempt to address the outcry over Freddie Gray’s death, the city has spent millions on body cameras for officers since 2016.

“Body camera was supposed to be the panacea for misconduct and Fourth Amendment violations and it has done a little of that, but it has been mainly used as evidence against our clients,” Oppenheim said. “The trade off is, it can exonerate a couple people but it’s going to get way more people locked up that shouldn’t be and it’s going to make other cases stronger cases against people who are already overpoliced.”

‘These are paranoid questions’

In 2016, the plane recorded marching protesters specifically because the police were concerned the march might try to disrupt an Orioles baseball game. The ability to monitor protests worries Ralikh Hayes of Black Leadership Organizing for Change, an activist instrumental in organizing marches during the Baltimore Uprising.

“We think this is similar to police body cameras in that it sounds good but when it comes to surveillance technology, it’s all about who controls and stores the data and who has access,” Hayes told The Appeal. “We are heavily opposed because the government doesn’t need more tech to watch Black bodies.”

Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation isn’t convinced by McNutt’s reassurances that the images are too low-resolution for individual targeting. He’s concerned about what happens when the image quality improves, when one pixel can easily become 10,000 pixels.

“That’s the technology today—what about in five years?” asked Maass. “Whatever the state of the art is, is not going to be there next year and he will likely forget he made that argument five years in the future.”

McNutt dismissed the technology concern. Even if he increased the quality of the footage 100 times what it is now, he said, he would just be “looking at the top of your head and all I can tell is if you’re middle-aged or balding.”

The argument that the footage is too low quality to be invasive is deceiving, Rocah said, because the plane’s photographs are used with the city’s network of on-the-ground CitiWatch cameras and location data, which makes it possible to identify people in the plane’s footage.

McNutt also shrugged off the general concerns about privacy.

“These are paranoid questions,” McNutt said to The Appeal. “Why would we care about you? How self-centered do you have to be?”

McNutt said he keeps all the footage in “a top-secret safe” that only he can access, and another copy of the video goes directly to the Baltimore Police. After the 2016 flights, neither McNutt nor the police performed an audit exploring the  potential for someone else to access and abuse the footage.

Many who voiced privacy concerns in 2016 are not assuaged by McNutt’s promise to use it to keep cops accountable.

“It’s the technological equivalent of every time you walk out of your door, there is a police officer following you,” Rocah said. “And if that happened in real life, we would all viscerally and clearly understand what was going on and find it intolerable.”

‘Our officers don’t tell the truth’

On Oct. 16, Baltimore City Council’s Public Safety Committee held a public hearing on the return of the plane. Williams was in attendance, sitting in the back of the chambers while McNutt walked around handing out a packet labeled “Open Letter to the Leadership of Baltimore.”

“While protections and oversight are in place to limit any potential risk of abuse, we ultimately feel the situation in the city is so dire that the significant benefits of solving unsolvable crimes and deterring crime far outweigh any risks,” the letter, signed by Williams and Joyous Jones, another member of Community With Solutions, argued at one point.

Later it stated: “If the ACLU or others feel this is unacceptable, we would challenge them to come live in our community for awhile then see if they feel the same way.”

But City Council members seemed unmoved by McNutt’s new community-oriented pitch.

City Council Member Brandon Scott, chairperson of the committee, questioned the plane’s usefulness, noting that McNutt had provided investigative briefs for just a little over 100 mainly minor incidents in 2016. He said they were proof the plane had not been particularly effective in solving violent crimes.

“We all know in this body that if you guys were closing homicide after homicide after homicide when this plane was up, the police department would’ve come in with that data ready to go,” Scott said.

Questions from vice chairperson of the committee, Ryan Dorsey, also exposed a new detail about the 2016 flights: Not only was McNutt’s plane recording from above, but his technicians had direct access to CitiWatch.

McNutt and his employees were able to watch high-quality surveillance footage of Baltimore residents up close to coordinate it with the plane footage. Police descriptions in 2016 led residents to believe that McNutt’s technicians had requested CitiWatch footage, not that they had direct access, Oppenheim said.

Council Member Kristerfer Burnett expressed concern that McNutt’s ownership of the video could let him unilaterally sell location data to private clients (something McNutt had mentioned as a possibility in the past) or share footage with federal immigration agents.

Williams made the strongest emotional appeal for the program.

“As you should know, our officers don’t tell the truth. It’s clear. This system tells the truth whether you like it or not,” Williams said. “I just hope that everyone here has an open mind. I understand that the words can get to you—‘spy in the sky,’ it can get to you, but let’s be clear, real people are dying out here in the streets.

When Rocah stood up to testify, he challenged McNutt’s argument that the aerial surveillance program can help stop police misconduct—the argument that converted Williams and others.

“If he’s going around to community leaders and using that as the argument to sell this, it’s really one of the most cynical and repulsive things I have ever heard of anybody doing, ever,” Rocah said. “We have real problems with police misconduct in Baltimore but tracking the location of every resident of Baltimore is [not] going to help.”

Nashville considers implementing an independent police oversight board, and more

Nashville considers implementing an independent police oversight board, and more

In This Edition of the Political Report

October 25, 2018:

  • Florida: Sheriff candidate pledges to withdraw from ICE partnership

  • Tennessee: Nashville considers implementing an independent police oversight board

  • Texas:  San Antonio DA candidate pledges to put ‘real teeth’ into cite-and-release

  • Texas: Marijuana prosecutions and bail reform at the forefront of Dallas DA race

  • Kansas: Candidate for attorney general centers campaign on criminal justice reform

  • Quick hits: The ACLU airs advertisement in Wake County, DeSantis speaks on platform

You can see previous coverage of the local politics of criminal justice reform and mass incarceration on our website The Appeal: Political Report. The site also features tools with which to explore all completed and upcoming local elections that the Political Report has covered.

Florida: Sheriff candidate pledges to withdraw from ICE partnership

Federal courts have repeatedly ruled against local officials who hold people in jail beyond their scheduled release based on ICE “detainer” requests. In January, ICE and 17 Florida sheriffs launched a new bid to circumvent those rulings; they announced a new sort of agreement, which they claim will enable local officials to legally hold people suspected of being undocumented for 48 extra hours while ICE prepares to detain them. The ACLU disputes that the new mechanism changes the legality of ICE detainers. “The new scheme is simply a change in paperwork, with no relevant legal changes,” says the ACLU.

Among the 17 sheriffs who joined this partnership is Chad Chronister of Hillsborough County, which contains Tampa. A Republican who was appointed to this office by Governor Rick Scott in 2017, Chronister is now seeking a full term.

While Chronister’s cooperation with ICE has drawn protests, local leaders from both parties have rallied around the sheriff. A month after his appointment, in October 2017, Chronister held a campaign kickoff with prominent county politicians, including Democrats like Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and State Attorney Andrew Warren. Chronister then joined ICE’s new program in January; Buckhorn and Warren have since reiterated their endorsements of Chronister.

Gary Pruitt, a former Tampa police corporal and Chronister’s Democratic challenger, told me on Monday that he would “definitely withdraw” from Chronister’s new partnership with ICE if he were elected. He said that the agreement implements a “dragnet approach” as federal authorities can target people on the local jails’ databases even if they didn’t “have somebody that they’re looking at.” “All you’re doing is screwing with people,” Pruitt said, noting that “the stigma of how we participated” makes communities distrust local law enforcement and endangers public safety.

The Appeal’s George Joseph wrote an article that details other issues in the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office, including its “troubling opacity regarding custody jail deaths.”

Tennessee: Nashville considers an independent police oversight board

In the wake of a Nashville police officer shooting and killing Jocques Clemmons, a Black man who was running away, community groups have put a referendum on the November ballot to create an independent board empowered to investigate police misconduct. Clemmons’s mother led the group of activists who submitted the referendum petition to municipal officials.

“The community has been pushing for this for at least 40 years,” Theeda Murphy, an organizer with Community Oversight Nashville, told me. She said Clemmons’s shooting sparked renewed urgency. In July, days before organizers filed their petition, Officer Andrew Delke fatally shot another Black man, Daniel Hambrick, while he was running away. Delke was charged with homicide in September. The officer who shot Clemmons, Joshua Lippert, faced no charges.

The federal Department of Justice investigated Nashville’s broader policing practices in 2017. Its report recommended that the city consider creating an independent oversight board. In 2016, a group of researchers published Driving While Black, a report on police stops in Nashville that documents aggressive tactics and disproportionate targeting of people of color.

The Fraternal Order of Police and the Davidson County Republican Party are mobilized against the proposal; they argue that police officers are already held accountable through internal investigations and external offices like the district attorney. David Briley, Nashville’s Democratic mayor, says that he supports the idea of an oversight board but not this initiative, in part because of insufficient police input. “The current leadership of the police department under Chief Anderson has been extremely resistant to being accountable outside of the police department,” Murphy said.

Oversight boards elsewhere differ greatly in terms of what independent power they possess. Nashville’s proposed board would get to conduct a “full and complete and independent investigation, outside the purview of the police department,” Murphy said, because it would have the power to issue subpoenas and thus compel witnesses. This is a power that some boards lack.

There is also variation about what is done with the investigations. “Who is going to be the final entity who is going to be supportive of them, because they will be challenged?” Liana Perez, the director of operations of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, told me. Nashville’s would be an advisory board. It would issue recommendations to the police department and the mayor. But “the police department will have to provide a rationale” if “they choose to not follow recommendations,” Murphy said. In addition, the board would get to research issues beyond individual cases and provide policy suggestions to the mayor.

The initiative also provides that four of the board’s 11 members need to live in “economically distressed neighborhoods.” “We wanted to make sure that we went beyond” people who tend to already be represented, Murphy said, and achieved “significant representation from people who are left out.”

Texas: San Antonio DA candidate pledges to put ‘real teeth’ into cite-and-release program

Bexar County, which contains San Antonio, will soon have a new district attorney. That much has been clear since the Democratic primary, where Joe Gonzales defeated incumbent Nico LaHood. The Appeal described LaHood in March as a “death-penalty championing, Islam-bashing vaccine skeptic.” Gonzales now faces Republican nominee Tylden Shaeffer. Both men used to work in the district attorney’s office and are now defense attorneys.

Gonzales has emphasized his commitment to reforming the criminal justice system. “Part of my whole progressive philosophy about restorative justice is to give people an opportunity to avoid convictions, avoid being straddled with having convictions on their records,” he said in October. At the same forum, Shaeffer equated talk of restorative justice with “soft on crime” policies. He has similarly pitted criminal justice reforms against public safety elsewhere. “We can’t solve every single one of society’s inequities,” he said in March. “The number one goal is to safeguard the community.”

This contrast has sparked more specific disagreements—starting with policies toward marijuana. Marijuana prosecutions have increased in the county in recent years, according to data compiled by the Justice Collaborative. (The Appeal and the Justice Collaborative are a fiscally sponsored project of Tides Advocacy.) In 2018, Bexar County began a cite-and-release program that allows law enforcement officers to issue citations instead of making arrests over possession of small amounts of marijuana. But its effect has been limited because of various restrictions and because defendants need to pay a $250 fee to participate in this diversion program, aggravating the two-track justice system.

Gonzales said in October that he wants to “put some real teeth into the cite-and-release program” so that “people don’t languish in jail while they’re waiting to get their cases resolved.” Shaeffer has been critical of cite-and-release policies.

Gonzales also proposes pursuing bail reform. He says that he would seek personal recognizance bonds, which allow people to be released without posting bail, more frequently; his website also features a vague commitment to seek “reasonable bail.” Shaeffer has voiced skepticism that the county needs to reform its bail system.

The two also disagree on whether local law enforcement should cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Shaeffer backs the 2017 law (Senate Bill 4) that bars sanctuary policies and enables local officers to ask about immigration status, whereas Gonzales has warned that the law would have “chilling effects.”

You can listen to the entire candidate forum held on Texas Public Radio in October here; I found the exchanges on how to define restorative justice (around the half-hour mark) especially enlightening.

Texas: Marijuana prosecutions and bail reform at the forefront of Dallas DA race

Appointed by Governor Greg Abbott in 2016, Faith Johnson is now seeking a full term as district attorney of Dallas County. She is running as the Republican nominee against Democrat John Creuzot, a former state district judge.

The Justice Collaborative recently published a trove of data on the Dallas County criminal justice system; I wish to highlight three areas and how they intersect with the DA race.

First, marijuana possession cases represent a significant share of criminal filings in the county, and they disproportionately target African Americans. Since January 2017, the first full month of Johnson’s tenure, 10 percent of all new criminal filings have been misdemeanor marijuana possession charges, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration data. And more than half of the people charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession have been Black, the Justice Collaborative shows. (Twenty-three percent of Dallas County residents are Black.)

Creuzot says that he would dismiss first-time marijuana possession charges, but Johnson rejects that position. “What happens is that then I become my own god,” she said. “I won’t arbitrarily decide which laws I don’t want to enforce.” (Her stance that she could avoid exercising prosecutorial discretion contrasts with her statement to the Dallas Morning News that she would be “always using [her] wisdom” to decide to use “progressive” or “aggressive” prosecution.)

Second is the county’s bail system, which a federal judge ruled unconstitutional last month for producing “wealth-based detention.” After coming into office, Johnson had announced that she would curb pretrial detention over marijuana possession through cite-and-release policies and more personal recognizance bonds. But the Justice Collaborative has found little change since; the share of people charged with marijuana possession on whom bond has been imposed is the exact same in 2018 as it was in 2016. Being held in jail because one is too poor to pay pressures defendants to plead guilty; in both 2017 and 2018, defendants charged with marijuana possession on whom bail was imposed were twice as likely to plead guilty as those on whom it was not. In answering an ACLU questionnaire, Creuzot wrote that the bail system is unconstitutional and in need of statewide reform; he also indicated that he would support releasing people on personal recognizance for “most low-level offenses.” (Johnson did not answer the questionnaire.)

Third is the prosecution of homelessness, which often occurs through trespassing charges. Since 2017, at least 26 percent of the people charged with trespassing have been homeless. Bonds were imposed on nearly all of them, and more than 80 percent pleaded guilty. Creuzot has said that he would curb trespassing prosecutions, and has specifically committed to not arresting homeless people on trespassing charges alone.

Beyond mentioning a “goal of ending mass incarceration,” Creuzot has been more specific than many DA candidates are willing to be by agreeing to set a quantified target. “My goal is to reduce Dallas County state jail and prison unit admissions by 15-20% within a four-year period,” he writes in his ACLU questionnaire. Beyond the policies described above, Creuzot has said that he would make probation terms less restrictive and only seek to revoke probation for violation that threatened public safety—as opposed to a missed appointment, for instance—and has proposed more services to address issues relating to drugs or mental health.

Kansas: Candidate for attorney general centers campaign on criminal justice reform

Sarah Swain, a defense attorney and the Democratic nominee for attorney general in Kansas, has centered her platform on criminal justice reform. A new profile in the Topeka Capital-Journal focuses on her criticism of the war on drugs and her support for policies and programs that would decrease incarceration over drug offenses. “I believe mass incarceration is a failed experiment,” Swain said.

In answering a questionnaire prepared by the Capital-Journal, Swain writes about her support for legalizing marijuana and abolishing the death penalty. Swain’s Republican opponent, incumbent Attorney General Derek Schmidt, opposes both proposals.

Schmidt was already favored since Kansas typically votes Republican. But Swain’s chances got even tougher in June when Democratic leaders stopped supporting her after a report that she hanged a poster in her office that shows Wonder Woman with a tight lasso around the neck of a police officer. (As of Oct. 23, Swain is not included on the state Democratic Party’s candidates page.) In a statement, Swain said that the poster speaks to the “less-than-honest police officers” she has witnessed in her work as a defense attorney, and that it depicts a “lasso of truth” and “the rigors of cross-examination.”

Quick hits: The ACLU airs advertisement in Wake County, DeSantis speaks on platform

Wake County, North Carolina: The election for Wake County sheriff features a divide on immigration policy—Sheriff Donnie Harrison would continue the county’s 287(g) agreement with ICE, while Democratic challenger Gerald Baker would withdraw from it—but I wrote two weeks ago that the issue has struggled for visibility in English-language media. The ACLU launched an ad this week that aims to draw attention to the county’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The ad discusses Harrison’s “anti-immigration agenda” and his “special agreement” to “detain immigrants using local resources.” An ACLU official said the organization is spending $100,000 on airing the advertisement.

Florida: Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for Florida governor, has outlined a far-reaching criminal justice reform agenda, but his opponent Ron DeSantis has largely avoided developing a precise platform, I wrote in August. In a new article by the Florida Times-Union, Andrew Pantazi describes DeSantis’s continued reluctance to provide specifics, but also provides clarity on DeSantis’s broader orientation: DeSantis does not believe that Florida needs to decrease its incarceration rate, and supports mandatory minimum sentencing and the state’s existing restrictions on parole. “To DeSantis, any retreat from the state’s tough-on-crime policies is an offense to police and will reverse the state’s 50-year low crime rates,” Pantazi writes.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.

More in Explainers

How Amazon and other tech giants became crucial enablers of Trump's immigration and law enforcement agenda

How Amazon and other tech giants became crucial enablers of Trump's immigration and law enforcement agenda

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: How Amazon and other tech giants became crucial enablers of Trump’s immigration and law enforcement agenda

  • Program meant to fight terrorism and narcotrafficking is being used to target the undocumented community

  • Advocates say Brooklyn DA’s office is prosecuting transgender people in self-defense cases

  • ICE arrested a man after he testified against his daughter’s attacker

  • Victims of police abuse in Chicago are often themselves arrested

  • NYC transit president calls for arresting homeless people on subways

  • Five-term North Carolina sheriff faces opposition from the left

In the Spotlight

How Amazon and other tech giants became crucial enablers of Trump’s immigration and law enforcement agenda

Amazon, Palantir, and other large tech companies are making billions of dollars by selling services that help President Trump’s deportation agenda, a new report says. A group of nonprofits, including Mijente and the Immigrant Defense Project, concludes in the report, Who’s Behind ICE?, that these companies are equipping ICE with technology that helps it track, detain, and deport immigrants. Far from the tangential aid the companies claim to provide, they in fact are “playing an increasingly central role in facilitating the expansion and acceleration of arrests, detentions and deportations,” the report states. They do so by enabling the government to rely increasingly on tech innovations such as big-data analysis and cloud-based storage; if unchecked, tech companies will continue to develop new systems that ICE uses to target immigrants and that police use to target people of color in their communities. “It is deeply troubling that at the same time these corporations characterize these services and products as business ventures that are free from bias, racism, profiling, and abuse, while being highly profitable.” [Megan Cerullo / Daily News]

The nonprofits argue that “dismantling the lucrative relationship between tech and ICE” is essential to pushing back against the White House’s stance on immigration, claiming that ICE “cannot develop or operate its massive information systems without the technology industry and its products and services.” Amazon, no longer simply a mega online retailer, has become a broker of cloud storage space; it now has the most federal authorizations to maintain government data, and hosts the data-sharing systems that the Department of Homeland Security relies on to “detect and prevent illegal entry.” In that role, Amazon stores biometric data for 230 million unique identities—including fingerprint and face records. McKinsey recently sponsored a “boot camp” where Amazon discussed Rekognition, its facial recognition system. One of the customers interested in learning more about those services? ICE. [Megan Cerullo / Daily News]

Over 450 Amazon employees signed a letter, urging CEO Jeff Bezos and other executives to halt their practice of selling Rekognition to police departments around the country. The letter also demanded employee oversight for ethical decision-making. In a follow-up article, an anonymous employee wrote that “Amazon is designing, marketing, and selling a system for dangerous mass surveillance right now.” The employee warned that law enforcement “has already started using facial recognition with virtually no public oversight or debate or restrictions on use from Amazon.” In Orlando, authorities are testing Rekognition with live video feeds from surveillance cameras around the city. In Oregon, a sheriff’s department is using Rekognition to let officers in the field compare photos to a database of mugshots. Teresa Carlson, vice president of the worldwide public sector of Amazon Web Services, said in July that Amazon “unwaveringly” supports law enforcement, defense, and intelligence customers, even if the company doesn’t “know everything they’re actually utilizing the tool for.” On stage in October, Bezos acknowledged that his company’s products might be exploited, but instead of preventing those abuses, Bezos suggested that Amazon wait for society’s “immune response.” [Anonymous Amazon employee / Medium]

A recent test of Rekognition ran pictures of every member of Congress against a collection of mugshots. Far from being perfect, there were 28 false matches, and the incorrect results were disproportionately higher for people of color. “The product we’re selling is a flawed technology that reinforces existing bias. Studies have shown that facial recognition is more likely to misidentify people with darker skin,” the employee writes. “But even if these inaccuracies were fixed, it would still be irresponsible, dangerous, and unethical to allow government use of this software. The existing biases that produced this bias exist within wider society and our justice system. The use of facial recognition will only reproduce and amplify existing systems of oppression.” The employee concludes: “For Amazon to say that we require our Rekognition customers to follow the law is no guarantee of civil liberties at all—it’s a way to avoid taking responsibility for the negative uses of this technology.” [Anonymous Amazon employee / Medium]

“If you think about the top 40 or top 80 companies you know, almost all of them are thinking about facial recognition, or they’ve all at least looked into it,” said Peter Trepp, CEO of the facial-recognition software company FaceFirst. Trepp said his company has also been marketing to sports stadiums and teams. On Wednesday, New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres, who represents the Bronx, introduced a bill that would require businesses to tell the public if they are using facial recognition, how long they are storing it, and who they are sharing it with. Torres was inspired to push the bill after he learned that Madison Square Garden uses facial recognition. [Nick Tabor / New York] No New York City law requires companies to disclose how they use facial-recognition technology. The NYPD, which is fighting a public-records request regarding its use of the tool, feeds images into a mug-shot database and gets back hundreds of possible matches, from which a group of detectives tries to find a match. [Zolan Kanno-Youngs / Wall Street Journal]

Several states, including Alaska, Connecticut, Montana, New Hampshire, and Washington, have considered similar privacy laws recently, but all except Washington have failed in those efforts. Illinois and Texas also have long-standing privacy laws in place. Much of the opposition comes from high-powered tech companies and trade groups, including Facebook and Google which “have come out in full force.” Facebook has been “especially aggressive, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity.” [Nick Tabor / New York]

This news all comes as the Transportation Security Administration “released a sweeping plan last week to turn U.S. airports into the first large-scale, comprehensive application of face surveillance technology on the American public,” according to the ACLU. This “would all culminate in the agency seeking to extend ‘biometric solutions to the general flying public.’” [Jay Stanley / ACLU] And to round out this week of dystopia, “RealNetworks released its Best Practices guide for using facial recognition technology to support safer K-12 campuses.” [Stephen Mayhew / RealNetworks]

Stories From The Appeal

Jorge Arroyo and his family in Texas this month. [Debbie Nathan/The Appeal]

Program Meant to Fight Terrorism and Narcotrafficking Is Being Used to Target the Undocumented Community. Opposition to Operation Stonegarden, however, is spreading; one Arizona county just rejected over $1 million of its funds. [Debbie Nathan]

Advocates Say Brooklyn DA’s Office Is Prosecuting Transgender People in Self-Defense Cases. Decision-making by prosecutors in such cases, says one attorney, ‘compounds, entrenches, and ultimately authorizes the initial act of violence by prosecuting the victim.’ [Aviva Stahl]

Stories From Around the Country

ICE arrested a man after he testified against his daughter’s attacker: “An undocumented Anaheim man picked up by immigration officials after appearing in court to seek a restraining order against his daughter’s molester could be deported Tuesday,” reports a news network in California. ICE arrested Marcos Villanueva while he was at breakfast with his family, just two days after he testified in court to help his 12-year-old daughter get a restraining order against her alleged attacker. She had accused her 51-year-old uncle of molesting her, and the family believes the uncle tipped off ICE in retaliation. The 40-year-old father and professional house painter had no criminal record, and he is scheduled to be deported at 5 a.m. Tuesday to Honduras, a country he fled 13 years ago in fear for his life, after witnessing a friend’s murder. “This is probably the most unjust and unfair case I’ve ever seen,” his attorney said. [Kristina Bravo, Elizabeth Espinosa, and Courtney Friel / KTLA]

Victims of police abuse in Chicago are often themselves arrested: The conviction this month of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke for killing teenager Laquan McDonald  is exceedingly rare. “Much more often, it’s the person on the other end of police force that ends up arrested, charged and convicted,” according to the Chicago Reporter. An investigation “has found a troubling pattern of Chicago police officers charging people they’ve assaulted with aggravated battery to a police officer, aggravated assault of a police officer, or resisting arrest. Defense attorneys call these ‘cover charges’ and say it’s a way to cover up bad behavior or justify their excessive use of force.” The investigation found that two out of every three times a Chicago officer reported using force since 2004, they arrested the subject on one of these charges. Cover charges comprise nearly one in five of the 1,112 police misconduct lawsuits paid out by the city between 2011 and 2017, costing taxpayers over $33 million. In 1972, a panel on Chicago police abuse “noted that three charges—disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and battery to a police officer—were so commonly used as cover for misconduct that lawyers referred to them as the ‘holy trinity.’” Nearly half a century later, little has changed. [Jonah Newman / Chicago Reporter]

NYC transit president calls for arresting homeless people on subways: New York City Transit President Andy Byford announced a crackdown on “subway vagrants” Monday, “directing station managers to remove homeless people who take up multiple seats and make a mess,” according to the New York Post. Byford told staffers to call the police if the “vagrants are engaging in ‘antisocial’ behavior.” This policy comes just in time for cold temperatures to drive homeless people off the streets and onto the subways. “They are human beings,” said Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member Charles Moerdler. “They are individuals with individual problems. To deal with them all as one is just wrong, and to deal with them uncaringly and recklessly, in my view, is a disaster.” Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, said, “The approach should be relationship-building and offering people services.” Riders told the Post that they don’t think the MTA should call the cops on homeless people for lying down or carrying all their possessions around. [Danielle Furfaro / New York Post]

Five-term North Carolina sheriff faces opposition from the left: Republican Donnie Harrison, the five-term sheriff of Wake County, is facing a Democratic challenger, Gerald M. Baker. Harrison and Baker agree that unnecessarily high bonds are keeping too many people in jail. Both support body-worn cameras. But Baker has been questioning the sheriff’s management skills and integrity. He “criticized Harrison for not firing a deputy who was charged with assault after unleashing his K-9 on an unarmed man in April,” according to the News & Observer. He also criticizes Harrison’s cooperation with ICE, supports treatment––not jail––for those with mental health or substance use disorders, and more accountability for officers who abuse their power. [Thomasi McDonald / News & Observer]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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