New report analyzes relationship between tech companies and surveillance on Black and Latinx Austinites

August 5, 2020

Report finds that as more tech companies move to Austin, city government increasingly caters to the industry’s well-paid workers, does little to prevent displacement, and caters to the supposed lack of safety facing newcomers.

AUSTIN, Tex. —  A new report by Grassroots Leadership, Mijente, and Just Futures Law, Austin’s Big Secret: How Big Tech and Surveillance are Increasing Policing, analyzes the relationship between tech companies and the city government and the links that increase policing and surveillance of Austin residents, specifically Black and Latinx Austinites. The report also notes the collaboration between local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), how tech companies strengthen this relationship, and how this leads to more deportations of immigrant residents. 

As companies like Apple, Google, and—most recently—Tesla receive tax incentives to move to the city, historically Black neighborhoods like East Austin have lost thousands of Black and Latinx residents to rising gentrification and over-policing. For instance, the Riverside Togetherness Project, a “crime reduction” program led by the Austin Police Department (APD) to “position the neighborhood for revitalization”, is explicitly tied to policing of its existing residents. 

APD runs the Austin Regional Intelligence Center (ARIC), a DHS-recognized Fusion Center composed of more than 20 local law enforcement agencies in central Texas that serves as an information-sharing hub between local, state and federal agencies, including ICE. The report finds that APD, particularly ARIC, has built a large surveillance network to track the personal data and location of Austin residents. This surveillance data is now being used by ICE to locate immigrants in order to conduct raids and deportations.

More troubling, the report finds that APD (through ARIC) shared at least 141 utility-reports of Austin residents from Austin Energy or Water, at least 83 vehicle registration reports, and 39 license plate reader reports to ICE since 2019. Sharing such information with ICE would provide them with residents’ home addresses as well as time and location history for vehicles. APD also shared the phone subscriber information of five individuals and at least one school incident report from the Austin Independent School District with ICE since 2019. 

Of the approximately $440 million apportioned to APD) in fiscal year 2020, approximately $58 million are dedicated for contracts with private companies in technology, surveillance, and biometric analysis. Some of the surveillance technologies contracted by APD and ARIC include: 

  1. A $1.2 million contract with HItachi for “HALO” cameras used for predictive policing and has been shown to be ineffective and potentially discriminatory in cities like Los Angeles.

  2. A $42 million contract (through 2022) with Axon Enterprise for body cameras and related software; the report also states that while body cameras are supposed to protect the public from police abuses, APD can also use Axon software to build cases against the public.

  3. A $655,583 contract (through 2023) for Forensic Logic’s Coplink software, the most widely used data sharing and crime analytics platform in the country and contracted by over 5,100 agencies; Coplink allows for data sharing en masse between local and federal law enforcement, invading people’s privacy and granting for federal agents from the FBI and ICE access to personal information from local sources.

  4. A $176,272 contract through third-party GTS Technology Solutions, Inc., an Austin company, for use of the license plate reader database developed by Vigilant Solutions, owned by Motorola Solutions; the data is voluntarily shared with 817 other law enforcement agencies, including ARIC and the National Vehicle Location Service, a pool of data shared with hundreds of agencies and accessible to ICE.

  5. A $160,541 contract for a subscription to Appriss JusticeXchange, proprietary software that provides up-to-date booking and incarceration data from thousands of government agencies; Appriss software is also used by ICE agents to track down targeted individuals even when no immigration detainer exists for them. 

  6. A $456,000 contract for a subscription with LexisNexis’ Accurint, a comprehensive database with information such as personal phone records, addresses, and “public records that would ordinarily take days to collect”; APD gets this personal data from commercial sources that individuals do not normally grant their consent to share with law enforcement, at least not with any reasonable degree of transparency.

The fact that APD can access commercial and private information on any person it chooses through for-profit databases purchased with public funds that form part of the police budget constitutes an unethical and unnecessary surveillance overreach. The fact that surveillance cameras, whether on police uniforms or in public spaces, are integrated into a “predictive policing” network to complement such data collection is concerning, as it opens the door for potentially racist targeting of certain communities based on existing arrest data.

Based on the findings of the report, the authors call on Austin elected officials to immediately act on the following:

  1. Defund APD by 50% and disband APD in four years beginning with:

    1. Defunding APD’s surveillance budget and no longer renewing APD’s surveillance contracts 

    2. Shutting down the Austin Regional Intelligence Center

  2. Require full reporting of APD’s surveillance tools (including government and commercial data tools) in compliance with the Freedom City Ordinance

  3. Shut down the Riverside Togetherness Project and other “revitalization” projects that rely on increased policing and data collection and reinvest those funds into the Austin RISE Fund, non-market-based low-income housing, Austin Public Health, and the Austin Equity Office

The report has been made available at bit.ly/ATXbigsecret.

 

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Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation, and criminalization are things of the past. Follow us @Grassroots_News.

Contact: 

Maria Reza, mreza@grassrootsleadership.org