Big tech companies including Microsoft, LexisNexis, and Palantir have helped fuel the militarization of local police forces and the Department of Homeland Security’s demand for high-tech surveillance, according to a new report from The Action Center on Race & the Economy (ACRE), LittleSis, MediaJustice, and the Surveillance, Tech, and Immigration Policing Project. Researchers working on the project dug into how these companies benefit from a hidden and misunderstood source of funding, which requires states to dump money into law enforcement activities if they want to receive money for things like emergency medical and response services.
The report is specifically concerned with FEMA’s Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grants, which the government has spent billions on in the years since 9/11. “The way that the grant program actually works is that DHS has an approved list of equipment that can be bought with the grant funding, but at least 30 percent of that money has to be used on law enforcement activities,” said Aly Panjwani, a senior analyst who worked on the report. And as Panjwani and his colleagues point out in their analysis, those activities usually have a disproportionate and negative impact on people of color.
UASI funding comes with strings attached
He told The Verge how this could put local governments in a bind. “If a city doesn’t want to accept money from the federal government for surveillance policing but desperately needs that emergency response money for hospitals, for emergency alert systems, other things that communities do need to keep themselves safe, they have to accept that funding because 30 percent must be allocated towards law enforcement activities.”
While most of the tech companies we rely on in our everyday lives don’t make physical weapons, some of them do make and sell products specifically intended to surveil the population. One of the examples included in the report is LexisNexis, a firm that’s well known for supplying journalists, scholars, and lawyers with access to databases full of documents. However, the company also provides information to law and immigration enforcement; in one case, its software contributed to a man named Khalid Al-Draibi being detained on terrorism charges, according to the report. Even though the FBI ended up clearing him of those charges, ACRE says LexisNexis later used the case in PR for its software. Al-Draibi wound up being deported.
The researchers also cite the existence of data fusion centers, locations funded by the DHS where local, state, and federal governments share data and information with private companies like LexisNexis and Experian. The report says that Microsoft, which is also one of the DHS’s cloud computing providers, pushed for the centers to be built and helped develop the infrastructure for them in some areas. It also goes into the more typical surveillance tech that benefits from Urban Area Security Initiative grant funding: the NYPD’s surveillance network and cities that purchase software from ShotSpotter in an attempt to pinpoint gunfire or Palantir to try and forecast crime.
“These technologies are not being misused,” said Alli Finn, a senior researcher for the report. “They’re being used exactly as the companies intended to be, and this is a key part of their business model.”
The report ends with several policy suggestions, including that cities and states reject Urban Area Security Initiative funds and corporations divest from data collection and sponsorships of political think tanks that push for stronger policing and surveillance. It also pushes for grassroots organizations to campaign for those changes.
That would not be an easy task. The Department of Homeland Security is now a $52.2 billion behemoth that has been around for 20 years now. And that monstrous budget keeps growing despite its well-documented legacy of inefficacy, cruelty, and failure — from airport security theater to domestic crackdowns.
There is at least some precedent for local governments taking steps to prevent police forces from using certain surveillance technologies on citizens. We’ve seen cities like Portland, Maine, San Francisco, and Minneapolis ban the use of facial recognition systems like those made by Clearview AI, even as the federal government has started to widely adopt the tech.
Finn says they haven’t seen any legislation in the works that they think could help address the issue, though the fact that the FTC is looking into regulating commercial surveillance is encouraging. “That ideally will help us limit some of the harms of the data broker industry,” they said. “But it’s not addressing the source of the funding, and privacy legislation also doesn’t fully tackle all of these harms. There’s always a law enforcement exception.”