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Exclusive: LAPD partnered with tech firm that enables secretive online spying | US policing

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The Los Angeles police department pursued a contract with a controversial technology company that could enable police to use fake social media accounts to surveil civilians and claimed its algorithms can identify people who may commit crimes in the future.

A cache of internal LAPD documents obtained through public records requests by the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-profit organization, and shared with the Guardian, reveal that LAPD in 2019 trialed social media surveillance software from the analytics company Voyager Labs.

Like many companies in this industry, Voyager Labs’ software allows law enforcement to collect and analyze large troves of social media data to investigate crimes or monitor potential threats.

But documents reveal the company takes this surveillance a step further. In its sales pitch to LAPD about a potential long-term contract, Voyager said its software could collect data on a suspect’s online network and surveil the accounts of thousands of the suspect’s “friends”. It said its artificial intelligence could discern people’s motives and beliefs and identify social media users who are most “engaged in their hearts” about their ideologies. And it suggested its tools could allow agencies to conduct undercover monitoring using fake social media profiles.

police officers outside headquarters
LAPD trialed Voyager’s software in 2019. Photograph: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock

The LAPD’s trial with Voyager ended in November 2019. The records show the department continued to access some of the technology after the pilot period, and that the LAPD and Voyager spent more than a year trying to finalize a formal contract. The documents show that the LAPD has had ongoing conversations this year about a continued partnership, but a police spokesperson told the Guardian on Monday that the department was not currently using Voyager.

The LAPD declined to respond to detailed and repeated inquiries on its trial with Voyager and its conversations about a potential long-term contract, as well as questions about its use of social media surveillance software.

The department has said in the past that social media can be critical for investigations and for “situational awareness” in monitoring major events for potential public safety issues. The city has seen large demonstrations in recent years, as well as clashes between activists over issues such as vaccination requirements.

But experts who reviewed the documents for the Guardian say they raise concerns about the LAPD’s pursuit of ethically questionable software. The department’s surveillance technology could be violating civilians’ free speech and privacy rights, the experts say, while facilitating racial profiling.

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The full scope of the LAPD’s surveillance tech is unclear, though records suggest that the department has in recent years purchased or considered buying software from at least 10 companies that monitor social media. The department is often a trailblazer among US police departments in adopting new technologies, with a large police budget and private foundation funding that allows it to trial programs later adopted by other departments.

The concerns come after the Guardian recently revealed that the LAPD has been directing officers to broadly collect social media information of civilians they stop and question, including people who are not cited or arrested, and amid growing scrutiny of the department’s surveillance and “predictive policing” practices.

‘Bigotry embedded in code’

Voyager – registered as Bionic 8 Analytics – gave the LAPD some of its products on a trial basis in the summer and fall of 2019, the records show.

The documents don’t make clear what suite of tools the LAPD had access to during the trial or whether the department used some of the company’s more controversial features. But a report the company produced for the LAPD during this period says the department used the company’s software to investigate more than 500 social media profiles and to analyze thousands of messages. The redacted report said the LAPD had used the software for “real-time tactical intelligence”; “protective intelligence” for “VIPs” in local government and in the LAPD; and cases related to gangs, homicides and hate groups. An unnamed the LAPD investigator was quoted in the report as saying Voyager helped the department “identify a few new targets”.

screenshot shows large blue ball of dots labeled 'NYC connections' along with boxes containing location information
A screen shot from Voyager proposals and pitches that the company shared with LAPD. Photograph: LAPD records via the Brennan Center

In internal messages about the pilot in 2019, the LAPD said Voyager was especially helpful in analyzing social media data obtained through warrants and in investigating online networks of “street gangs”.

Communications between Voyager and the LAPD after the trial ended and when the company was trying to sell the department on its products reveal more about the firm’s purported capabilities, claims experts said were bold and troubling.

In the spring of 2020, while pitching a contract, Voyager provided the LAPD with case studies illustrating how the software had been used.

In one example, the company said its software had been used to investigate a Muslim Brotherhood activist in New York City who allegedly made a video encouraging people to intentionally spread Covid to Egyptian government officials in March 2020.

A Voyager representative told the LAPD the investigation was conducted for “federal and local agencies” but did not name the clients or specify whether the threat had turned out to be legitimate. But Voyager said its software was able to collect and analyze thousands of the activist’s social media posts and had scooped up data on 4,000 of his “friends”.

Voyager also said its software was able to discern which social media users caught up in the search were “top connections” of the activist and that it could determine who was based in New York and who worked for a government agency. The company claimed the software could also discern which of the accounts showed an “affinity” for “violent, radical ideologies” based on “indirect connections” to “extremist accounts”, appearing to refer to friends of friends.

In another presentation, Voyager suggested its software could not only collect large amounts of social media data but that its “artificial intelligence” could discern people’s beliefs.

Voyager showed LAPD how its software could have been used to investigate an alleged terrorist attack, analyzing the case of Adam Alsahli – a man killed after he opened fire at the Corpus Christi naval base in May 2020. Pointing to the man’s social media activity, Voyager claimed its AI could ascertain people’s “affinity for Islamic fundamentalism or extremism”. The company cited the shooter’s “pictures with Islamic themes” and said his Instagram accounts showed “his pride in and identification with his Arab heritage”. The company said its AI was so effective that its results, produced in minutes, did not “require any intervention or assessments by an analyst or investigator”.

screenshot with heading "rapid risk assessment - connections to islamists or solidarity with islamist content'
Voyager showed the LAPD how its software could have been used to investigate an alleged terrorist attack. Photograph: LAPD records via the Brennan Center

In an October 2020 proposal document, Voyager also said its software could conduct a “sentiment analysis” to discern who was most emotionally invested and had the “passion needed to act on their beliefs”.

Voyager’s monitoring of broad online networks, and its claims about AI, raised red flags for experts.

“There’s a basic ‘guilt by association’ that Voyager seems to really endorse,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a deputy director at the Brennan Center, about Voyager’s New York City case study. “This notion that you can be painted with the ideology of people that you’re not even directly connected to is really disturbing.”

The naval base shooting example was deeply troubling, said Meredith Broussard, a New York University data journalism professor and expert on AI, who reviewed the records for the Guardian. “Just because you have an affinity for Islam does not mean you’re a criminal or a terrorist. That is insulting and racist. It’s religious bigotry embedded in code.”

“This is hyperbolic AI marketing. The more they brag, the less I believe them,” said Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist and algorithmic auditor, arguing that the firm’s broad claims were not based in legitimate science and were unachievable: “They’re saying, ‘We can see if somebody has criminal intent.’ No, you can’t. Even people who commit crimes can’t always tell they have criminal intent.”

The consequences of this pseudoscience can be dire, she added: “Claims of accuracy don’t have to actually be true for the algorithm to be used as a weapon.”

Concerns about undercover spying

The documents show Voyager and LAPD officers also discussed some of the company’s most controversial proposals. In an October 2020 letter to the LAPD outlining details of a potential contract, Voyager claimed its social media monitoring was “traceless”, saying that the social media companies themselves would not be able to tell that LAPD was behind the surveillance.

In an earlier report to LAPD in 2019, Voyager said it was developing software to spy on WhatsApp groups using an “active persona mechanism”, or “avatar”, suggesting that police would create a fake account to collect information from a group.

In one September 2019 email to a Voyager sales representative, an LAPD technology official said the feature that allows police to “log in with fake accounts that are already friended with the target subject” was a “great function”, but added that the department was not heading in the direction of using that service.

It’s unclear if the LAPD ever used the fake account feature. In another September 2019 email, an LAPD official in the robbery and homicide division told Voyager that the “avatars” function was a “need-to-have” feature. And Voyager said in one document that some LAPD staffers piloting its services had requested the “active persona” feature for Facebook, Instagram and Telegram.

This feature could violate the policies of Facebook, which prohibits fake accounts and has previously deactivated users that it determined were police officers impersonating civilians. A Facebook spokesperson said members of law enforcement, like all users, were required to use their real names on their profiles.

screenshot describes company's 'active persona' feature
Voyager said it was developing software to spy on WhatsApp groups using an ‘active persona mechanism’. Photograph: LAPD records via the Brennan Center

“As stated in our terms of services, misrepresentations and impersonations are not allowed on our services and we take action when we find violating activity,” a Facebook spokesperson, Sally Aldous, said in a statement.

Using fake accounts to monitor activists online was equivalent to undercover spying, civil rights advocates said.

LAPD has policies for “online undercover activity” that establishes some restrictions for this tactic, including requiring special approval from a supervisor if police are using a fake account to communicate with someone, but there is less oversight if an account is created to examine “trends” or for “conducting research”.

John Hamasaki, a criminal defense lawyer and member of the San Francisco police commission, said some police departments were updating policies to restrict the use of fake accounts in an effort to protect free speech. In San Francisco, he said, police would be barred from using a company like Voyager for broad surveillance of online networks. The type of predictive policing software that Voyager advertises is also strictly prohibited in Oakland, according to the city’s privacy commission.

“The problem with these types of surveillance operations is they’re often not based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” he said. “Instead, it is casting a broad net.”

Levinson-Waldman of the Brennan Center said it was unclear how widespread this kind of surveillance was in police departments across the US. She noted that while law enforcement departments were increasingly relying on social media in investigations, there was often little transparency.

The LAPD and the New York police department have two of the largest police budgets in the country and have a long history of piloting cutting-edge technology that ends up being ineffective or harmful, said Broussard, the author of Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World.

Even when the LAPD or NYPD cease using certain products, the companies end up bringing their tech elsewhere, she said: “The companies still want to sell software, so they go after smaller police forces that have even less capacity to evaluate the efficacy of these snake-oil software systems.”

Recent reporting has shown how the LAPD has used surveillance technology similar to Voyager’s to monitor Black Lives Matter organizing, and the department also recently said it was pursuing this kind of technology for “information gathering” in a report about reforms since the George Floyd protests. The LAPD did not respond to questions from the Guardian about whether Voyager was used for monitoring protesters.

In a report in September of this year, the department said it was “currently using” Voyager software and seeking $450,000 to purchase additional Voyager technology. But an LAPD spokesperson said this week that the department was not using the company’s software at the moment. She did not respond to questions about when LAPD ceased using the services and if the department was still pursuing a partnership.

Voyager declined to comment on its work with the LAPD and did not answer specific questions about its services. A spokesperson, Lital Carter Rosenne, said its clients were responsible for building databases and running the software, adding: “As a company, we follow the laws of all the countries in which we do business. We also have confidence that those with whom we do business are law-abiding public and private organizations.”

LA activists said the revelations raised serious concerns about how the tech could be used against groups that protest against the LAPD. “I’m really astounded that not only is LAPD using these companies, but that there are these tactics which feel very much like digital infiltration,” said Dr Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA. “It demonstrates that our fears are true.”

Abdullah, who had not heard of Voyager Labs, said she was particularly disturbed to learn about potential monitoring of WhatsApp groups: “We know that our public posts are monitored. But when they’re engaging in additional digging into private posts, that is supposed to be a more secure way of communicating.”

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Best podcasts of the week: what does the bloodsucking saga Twilight tell us about society? | Podcasts

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Picks of the week

The Big Hit Show
“Twilight is stupid; if you like it, you’re also stupid.” Why is there so much vitriol towards female Twihards? (Spoiler: misogyny.) In the first run of a series unpicking pop culture’s biggest moments – from the Obamas’ media company – Alex Pappademas starts by dissecting the wildly popular tale of teenage vampire love – and what the reactions to it say about us. Even if you’re not a fan, he raises some great questions. Hollie Richardson

Fake Psychic
Journalist Vicky Baker captivated listeners with Fake Heiress and now she investigates the fascinating story of Lamar Keene, the go-to spiritualist of 1960s America. When he hung up his questionable crystal ball he decided to reveal the tricks of supposed psychics, and Baker asks if that too was a con while pondering the authenticity of the psychics who followed. Hannah Verdier

Deep Cover: Mob Land
Animal lover, lawyer and switcher of identities Bob Cooley is the subject of Jake Halpern’s new season of the reliably mysterious podcast. Cooley was a top Chicago mob lawyer in the 70s and 80s, but what was the price when he offered to switch to the FBI’s side? This dive into corruption quizzes the key figures around him. HV

Chutzpod
This lively, engaging podcast attempts to “apply a Jewish lens to life’s toughest questions”. Hosts Rabbi Shira Stutman and one-time West Wing actor Joshua Malina cover topics ranging from reality TV shows to the Jewish “New Year of the Trees”, via the recent hostage stand-off at a synagogue in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville. Alexi Duggins

Backstage Pass with Eric Vetro
Eric Vestro is a vocal coach who’s worked with the likes of John Legend, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello and Ariana Grande. Here, he entertainingly lifts the curtain on their craft, talking to them about their journey in a manner that feels genuinely intimate given their pre-existing relationships. Expect some enjoyably daft voice exercises too. AD

Royally Flush investigates the monarchy’s relationship with the British slave trade.
Royally Flush investigates the monarchy’s relationship with the British slave trade. Photograph: Chris Radburn/Reuters

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

It’s fair to say that in the last couple of years the British monarchy has been put under a microscope for the way they handle their own family members, whether that be an heir to the throne and his American wife, or a prince embroiled in a civil sex abuse case. In a two parter titled Royally Flush, however, the Broccoli Productions’ Human Resources podcast goes back in time to investigate the royal family’s role in the slave trade in Britain, questioning how influential they were in trying to prevent abolition.

This is clearly a pandemic production as audio quality can sometimes be shaky, but the content is an important listen. As the country gears up to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee, writer and host, Moya Lothian-McLean takes us on an unexplored trip down memory lane, presenting fascinating insights into why – despite ample evidence that the monarchy was historically instrumental in propping up the slave trade in Britain – we haven’t heard so much as a sorry coming from Buckingham Palace, according to the program maker.

Talking points

  • Never underestimate the skill that goes into making a good podcast. Over a year since Meghan and Harry’s audio production company Archewell signed a podcast deal with Spotify, they’ve only managed to release a single podcast. Hence, presumably the job ads Spotify posted this week, looking for full-time staff to help Archewell.

  • Why not try: Smartless | Screenshot

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California’s net neutrality law dodges Big Telecom bullet • The Register

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The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court’s refusal to block California’s net neutrality law (SB 822), affirming that state laws can regulate internet connectivity where federal law has gone silent.

The decision is a blow to the large internet service providers that challenged California’s regulations, which prohibit network practices that discriminate against lawful applications and online activities. SB 822, for example, forbids “zero-rating” programs that exempt favored services from customer data allotments, paid prioritization, and blocking or degrading service.

In 2017, under the leadership of then-chairman Ajit Pai, the US Federal Communications Commission tossed out America’s net neutrality rules, to the delight of the internet service providers that had to comply. Then in 2018, the FCC issued an order that redefined broadband internet services, treating them as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act instead of more regulated “telecommunications services” under Title II of the Communications Act.

California lawmaker Scott Wiener (D) crafted SB 822 to implement the nixed 2015 Open Internet Order on a state level, in an effort to fill the vacuum left by the FCC’s abdication. SB 822, the “California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018,” was signed into law in September 2018 and promptly challenged.

In October 2018, a group of cable and telecom trade associations sued California to prevent SB 822 from being enforced. In February, 2021, Judge John Mendez of the United States District Court for Eastern California declined to grant the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to block the law. 

So the trade groups took their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has now rejected their arguments. While federal laws can preempt state laws, the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband services has moved those services outside its authority and opened a gap that state regulators are now free to fill.

“We conclude the district court correctly denied the preliminary injunction,” the appellate ruling [PDF] says. “This is because only the invocation of federal regulatory authority can preempt state regulatory authority.

The FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services

“As the D.C. Circuit held in Mozilla, by classifying broadband internet services as information services, the FCC no longer has the authority to regulate in the same manner that it had when these services were classified as telecommunications services. The agency, therefore, cannot preempt state action, like SB 822, that protects net neutrality.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supported California in an amicus brief, celebrated the decision in a statement emailed to The Register.

“EFF is pleased that the Ninth Circuit has refused to bar enforcement of California’s pioneering net neutrality rules, recognizing a very simple principle: the federal government can’t simultaneously refuse to protect net neutrality and prevent anyone else from filling the gap,” a spokesperson said.

“Californians can breathe a sigh of relief that their state will be able to do its part to ensure fair access to the internet for all, at a time when we most need it.”

There’s still the possibility that the plaintiffs – ACA Connects, CTIA, NCTA and USTelecom – could appeal to the US Supreme Court.

In an emailed statement, the organizations told us, “We’re disappointed and will review our options. Once again, a piecemeal approach to this issue is untenable and Congress should codify national rules for an open Internet once and for all.” ®

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RCSI scientists find potential treatment for secondary breast cancer

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An existing drug called PARP inhibitor can be used to exploit a vulnerability in the way breast cancer cells repair their DNA, preventing spread to the brain.

For a long time, there have been limited treatment options for patients with breast cancer that has spread to the brain, sometimes leaving them with just months to live. But scientists at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI) have found a potential treatment using existing drugs.

By tracking the development of tumours from diagnosis to their spread to the brain, a team of researchers at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Beaumont RCSI Cancer Centre found a previously unknown vulnerability in the way the tumours repair their DNA.

An existing kind of drug known as a PARP inhibitor, often used to treat heritable cancers, can prevent cancer cells from repairing their DNA because of this vulnerability, culminating in the cells dying and the patient being rid of the cancer.

Prof Leonie Young, principal investigator of the RCSI study, said that breast cancer research focused on expanding treatment options for patients whose disease has spread to the brain is urgently needed to save the lives of those living with the disease.

“Our study represents an important development in getting one step closer to a potential treatment for patients with this devastating complication of breast cancer,” she said of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Deaths caused by breast cancer are often a result of treatment relapses which lead to tumours spreading to other parts of the body, a condition known as secondary or metastatic breast cancer. This kind of cancer is particularly aggressive and lethal when it spreads to the brain.

The study was funded by Breast Cancer Ireland with support from Breast Cancer Now and Science Foundation Ireland.

It was carried out as an international collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh in the US. Apart from Prof Young, the other RCSI researchers were Dr Nicola Cosgrove, Dr Damir Varešlija and Prof Arnold Hill.

“By uncovering these new vulnerabilities in DNA pathways in brain metastasis, our research opens up the possibility of novel treatment strategies for patients who previously had limited targeted therapy options”, said Dr Varešlija.

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