Every Breath You Take

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Fellow Democrats,

Over the past couple of decades, we have accepted previously unimaginable levels of surveillance. Our “smart” TVs and streaming services track what we watch, Spotify and Apple know what songs you listen to, and eBook services log every click you make. We’ve accepted this in return for the incredible convenience these companies offer.

Many of us have also had the disturbing experience of getting online ads related to things we said aloud. You were talking about getting some new boots, and the next time you’re online there are boot ads on every website. Are the machines always listening to us? Of course. How else do Alexa and Siri know when to respond?

One of the many memorable disturbing images in George Orwell’s 1984 is the ubiquitous screens, which watch you as you watch them, and cannot be turned off. Our relationship with our robotic overlords is currently more benign, but we should be on guard. Things quickly get scary when the companies and agencies which monitor us share and combine their files.

If you have worked on a political campaign, you have almost certainly used the PDI political data service. PDI is based on public records of voter registration and election participation, so a campaign can get lists of all the Culver City Democrats who voted in the last two City Council elections, for example, and combines this with information from marketing agencies, so they can offer lists of renters, of households with children in secondary school, etc, to help campaigns reach these groups with targeted messaging.

PDI also assigns each voter an ideology score. It’s clearly useful to a campaign to be able to target liberal or conservative voters, or those with inconsistent records who may be persuadable. Our ballots are secret, so how is this possible? This is where things begin to get dark. Your votes are not public, but your donations are. Even if you do not give to candidates or parties, you may have donated to the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, the ACLU, the ADL, KCRW, etc. Companies sell information to agencies, who sell it to other companies, including PDI. Did Amazon sell them a list of what books you bought, or just their own rating of your ideology (so they know whether to steer you to the new Chomsky, Maddow, or David Brooks)? We will never know. The ingredients of the data stew and the algorithmic recipe are trade secrets.

PDI offers LGBTQ+ as a category. How do they know who is queer? One person told me their theory that PDI assumes every household of same-sex adults is a romantic partnership, which may or may not be news to Oscar and Felix, Laverne and Shirley, or the Golden Girls. I suspect there is a bit more to it. Subscribing to The Advocate will probably get you on the list, as will donating to the Human Rights Campaign and possibly having parents who donate to PFLAG. Will watching Queer Eye? Drag Race? Pose? Driving a Subaru? Humans can learn to use generalizations sensitively, to recognize when they are convenient or funny and when they are limiting and hurtful, machines can’t.

Although there is currently great social acceptance and legal recognition of LGBTQ+ people and PDI only works with progressive organizations, that acceptance and recognition is not universal, may not be permanent, and there is little stopping less benign groups from acquiring and compiling similar data to make their own lists.

You have a choice to not shop at Amazon, to not buy Alexa, to disable Siri on your devices, to use DuckDuckGo instead of Google, to use software like the Brave browser which blocks cookies and trackers, to use a VPN, to pay with crypto, etc. We have some control over our exposure. However, even if you fully unplug, you are still subject to police power.

On May 28, the Culver City City Council will consider allowing the police to purchase devices which shoot GPS tags onto fleeing vehicles, allowing them to be tracked without the danger of a car chase. This item was previously on the agenda and lost in a tie vote, with Members Vera and O’Brien in favor and Member Puza and Mayor McMorrin opposed. Council Member Eriksson asked for the item to return to the agenda because he had missed the first meeting, and made an almost Freudian slip when he said the police had “required” rather than “requested” the new gear. By the time you read this it will almost certainly have passed by the predictable 3-2.

Police chases regularly endanger thousands of people and create hours of chaos. Why would someone oppose an alternative? City Council candidate Bubba Fish, also a member of this Club, argues that investments in police technology are a misuse of resources as long as social service programs are underfunded. We can look next door at the new LA City budget where LAPD received double-digit percentage pay raises and added officers while most other City departments shrank. According to LA City Controller Kenneth Mejia’s office, LAPD went more than $120 million over budget last year, the largest overage in the budget. General Services was second, then LAPD liability payouts at $105 million. Departments which operated within their means are being cut to pay for these excesses. Four years after the summer of 2020, the police are defunding cities.

Let’s add the information management component to this analysis. Police surveillance technology does not communicate to City computers but to the companies who provide the gear, such as Motorola for license plate readers and Axon for body-worn cameras. If we do not physically possess the server and have top-level administrator privileges, its contents are not ours. 

The policies governing police technology are not written by the City but are bought from Lexipol. UCLA Law Professor Joanna Schwartz, who was a guest speaker at one of our meetings and is not a relative of mine, has documented that Lexipol’s mission is to protect cities from liability, and thus police from accountability, rather than to control police behavior and that they are a major obstacle to evidence-based and popularly-supported change.

Similar language appears in all these policies. It sounds right, but it is not. For example, the Automated License Plate Reader policy prohibits CCPD from sharing data with agencies investigating people who have come to California for abortions or gender-affirming care and from sharing it with ICE. However, while CCPD may not do this, Motorola might, or Motorola might share the information with an agency which then shares it with yet another. CCPD will follow its policy, Motorola will follow its policy, and the next organization will follow its policy, but at some point a loophole opens and in the end data gathered by Culver City will be used to track someone down for the “crime” of abortion. Everything will have been “in policy,” so no one is accountable or liable.

However, we should not assume police and corporations will even follow their policies. Just this week there were news stories that a majority of major automakers share “smart car” tracking data with police without a warrant and that police in cities which have banned facial recognition have been sending photos to police in towns with different policies to run through the prohibited software. Dozens of California police departments have defied state law without consequences for almost a decade by sharing license plate reader data with non-California agencies. In the summer of 2020 police fired so-called “less lethal” projectiles at crowds of nonviolent protestors, leading to numerous serious injuries, including permanent disfigurement and disability. New policies were enacted, and police violated them with impunity when they destroyed UCLA’s Gaza peace encampment on May 2.

When the Republican Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs ruling, the majority opinion, written by Samuel Alito (who was appointed by Bush the Younger) and cosigned by Neil Gorsuch (Trump) and Amy Comey Barrett (Trump), stated that they were not overturning the right to privacy which Roe had relied on but instead cited selected older bans on abortion to argue that the Founders did not intend to permit it. The majority opinion argued that, because their ruling did not overturn the right to privacy which was largely defined by Justice William Douglas (FDR) in his expansive reading of the 14th Amendment in the 1965 Griswold decision, it did not threaten Griswold or other decisions which relied on this principle, specifically Lawrence and Obergefell. Chief Justice Roberts’ (Bush the Younger) concurrence was based on even narrower grounds. However, in his concurring opinion, Clarence Thomas (Bush the Elder) wrote that he voted to overturn Roe specifically because he disagreed with Justice Douglas and that the Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell decisions should all be similarly dispatched. Griswold created a right to contraception, Lawrence (2003) repealed “sodomy” laws that had made many forms of sexual relations illegal, even when practiced in private between consenting adults, and Obergefell (2015) established Federal marriage equality. Thomas has called his shot, and we know from his confirmation hearing he is not good at kidding around.

The Trump court will overturn these precedents, and every networked piece of police technology everywhere will be used to enforce the patriarchal dictates of Texas, Arizona, Florida, etc. It is foolish to give more power to those who have repeatedly abused it. It’s time to start rolling back the surveillance apparatus.