Seattle’s surveillance contractor has historical past of unlawful gross sales, bribery, worrying privateness advocates


At avenue corners throughout downtown Seattle, eye-catching public artwork clothes up drab steel bins filled with the digital guts that function visitors indicators. However there’s one thing extra to those gussied-up casings.

Throughout the highest of a whole lot of them are flat black discs the scale of a brief stack of fluffy pancakes — so unobtrusive that somebody would must be searching for one to note it.

When a cellphone passes inside Wi-Fi vary, sensors atop visitors indicators detect it and in a flash ship its digital fingerprint to the little dish — an antenna. Instantaneously, the info is piped by means of Ethernet cables to a hub the place Seattle metropolis visitors planners can observe actions in real-time, sifting huge tranches of information to research visitors patterns.

An internet of greater than 300 of those sensors spans town, principally downtown, alongside the Mercer Road hall and in South Lake Union. Their knowledge helped Seattle’s visitors planners to chop common delays throughout peak night commuting hours by means of downtown in half between 2017 and late 2019, by means of easy changes to visitors sign instances, in accordance with town.

However the knowledge comes with a value past this yr’s $300,000 expense to town. The info assortment raises civil liberties questions for anybody who passes by means of Seattle’s core with a cellphone, and considerations concerning the metropolis’s affiliation with an organization with a troubling historical past.

A bunch of privateness advocates from a Seattle nonprofit who’ve studied the expertise fear town’s contractor, Acyclica, may resell knowledge to regulation enforcement and federal companies, exposing people’ actions and private associations.

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Acyclica’s dad or mum firm, Oregon-based FLIR Techniques, denies the info it collects in Seattle is on the market. And an organization spokesperson mentioned the privateness invasions that critics have contemplated are usually not attainable due to the privateness requirements FLIR adheres to. The town of Seattle, by means of a spokesperson, mentioned FLIR couldn’t promote the info with out permission.

Privateness advocates nonetheless have urged town to confirm these claims by means of an unbiased audit, tracing what occurs to Seattleites’ knowledge after the corporate collects it. As an alternative, Seattle not too long ago introduced plans to vastly broaden its use, changing the prevailing license-plate reader expertise that tracks visitors.

FLIR’s beforehand unreported historical past of great violations by means of worldwide expertise gross sales added new considerations. FLIR settled federal regulatory charges for illegally promoting restricted navy expertise to nations that have been below sanctions for human-rights abuses and threats to the U.S. and its allies, in accordance with a Seattle Instances evaluate of federal data.

FLIR additionally pleaded to charges of bribing Saudi Arabian officers to sweeten a enterprise deal, in accordance with U.S. Securities and Alternate Fee (SEC) data. The corporate has been fined $40 million over the previous six years, and is on strict federal monitoring consequently.

Nonetheless, when Seattle issued a “privateness impression report” of the Acyclica expertise in 2019, it omitted this troubling historical past. The evaluate was required by a metropolis ordinance that assesses the implications of city-deployed surveillance.

The omission, in accordance with a Seattle metropolis spokesperson, is as a result of the violations didn’t contain mishandling knowledge or privateness considerations and have been judged to be irrelevant to the evaluate’s give attention to civil liberties.

The ACLU of Washington has praised Seattle’s privateness ordinance, however Jennifer Lee, who manages the group’s Expertise and Liberty mission, mentioned the omission was an oversight.

“It’s positively regarding that FLIR has a number of (arms gross sales) violations, and I positively suppose that info is pertinent to a surveillance impression report,” mentioned Lee, a member of town’s advisory group that assesses privateness and civil liberties implications of town’s expertise.

“It’s necessary that the corporate {that a} Seattle authorities company is contracting with has a historical past of those violations. It’s related as to whether this firm is ready to retailer and handle folks’s info.”

Sensors on more than 300 utility boxes throughout Seattle, such as this one along Mercer Street, transmit cellphone location data to the city of Seattle and to a private company with a troubling history. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Sensors on greater than 300 utility bins all through Seattle, reminiscent of this one alongside Mercer Road, transmit cellphone location knowledge to town of Seattle and to a personal firm with a troubling historical past. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Instances)

Digital thumbprint

Seattle’s Division of Transportation (SDOT) started utilizing the Acyclica system to measure journey instances and visitors intervals downtown starting in 2015, two years earlier than the Metropolis Council adopted its privateness ordinance.

The mixture knowledge helps metropolis engineers alter visitors indicators to optimize commute instances, and feeds alerts to drivers through overhead indicators about accidents. The town referred to the info assortment because the “spine of SDOT’s response to the ‘Seattle Squeeze,’” a pre-pandemic convergence of downtown megaprojects that snarled visitors.

SDOT has turn out to be so reliant on Acyclica expertise that it questioned its means to hold out core features with out it. “No different real-time knowledge sources for arterial journey instances are as correct as these gathered through these applied sciences,” in accordance with town ‘s privateness evaluate. “SDOT wouldn’t be capable to present real-time journey instances to the general public, as they’d not be sufficiently dependable.”

Different cities additionally depend on the Acyclica expertise, together with Los Angeles and Denver.

When a smartphone passes inside Wi-Fi vary of an Acyclica sensor, it instantly vacuums up the cellphone’s media entry management (MAC) handle, a novel chain of numbers and letters equal to a cellphone’s digital thumbprint.

Underneath its settlement with town, Acyclica sends a scrambled model of the digital thumbprint to visitors planners, who solely see an anonymized quantity. A metropolis audit in 2015, three years earlier than FLIR purchased Acyclica, concluded the digital thumbprint couldn’t be tied to a person cellphone consumer.

FLIR acknowledged to The Seattle Instances it retains a duplicate of the info with altered however unencrypted MAC addresses. “No uncooked MAC addresses might be accessed at any level inside the system,” FLIR spokesman Keith Metz-Porozni mentioned.

However a digital privateness nonprofit, the Vital Platform Research Group, created by researchers from the College of Washington’s celebrated Data Faculty, has studied the Acyclica expertise, and is skeptical that the info stays personal.

The advocates’ foremost fear is that the info could possibly be shared with regulation enforcement or offered on the open market by FLIR.

“The town actually simply needs to be certain they know the place that knowledge goes,” mentioned Peaks Krafft, a former UW researcher who’s now a senior lecturer on the Inventive Computing Institute on the College of the Arts London. Up to now, Krafft mentioned, town hasn’t been in a position to reply this query to the satisfaction of privateness advocates.

Speculative knowledge hoarding in hopes {that a} marketplace for it develops is more and more widespread amongst tech corporations which have entry to troves of it, mentioned Michael Katell, a postdoctoral analysis affiliate on the Alan Turing Institute in London, the UK’s nationwide examine middle for knowledge science and synthetic intelligence.

“The mannequin is to gather as a lot knowledge as attainable and decide its worth later,” he mentioned. “It’s an asset. We’ll determine if we will use it later.”

Seattle is supplying FLIR with exactly that asset, and paying the corporate to gather it, in accordance with Meg Younger, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell College’s New York Metropolis campus who earned her doctorate on the College of Washington, the place her analysis targeted on the intersection of expertise and public coverage.

“The explanation that it’s incorrect isn’t as a result of (the info) is being abused now or positively will probably be abused sooner or later, however as a result of town is paying for this knowledge to exist,” she mentioned. “There’s an obligation it has to the general public to ensure that the funds the general public is spending on this knowledge don’t endanger the general public.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, not too long ago raised alarms concerning the buy of geolocation knowledge plucked from cellphones by one other firm that the IRS bought to conduct investigations into particular person taxpayers.

A report final month by the Inside Income Service’s Inspector Basic obtained by Wyden and shared with The Seattle Instances demonstrates {that a} sturdy marketplace for location knowledge gathered from cellphones exists — and the federal authorities is the primary buyer in line. In it, the IRS admits shopping for entry to cellphone knowledge from 19 unnamed companies to make use of in prison investigations, however claims it “didn’t produce helpful outcomes.”

In 2017, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was discovered to have purchased cellphone knowledge in San Diego to make use of in deportation roundups, famous Katell.

“The place folks dwell, the place folks work, after they go to the abortionist …” Katell mentioned, “to the extent {that a} federal company like (ICE) may attempt to affix MAC addresses to immigrants, there’s actual apparent worth.”

FLIR’s historical past of ethics breaches solely provides to these considerations.

Bribes, unlawful gross sales

By the point it turned a vendor to Seattle by buying Acyclica in September 2018, FLIR already had a tarnished report of bribing overseas leaders and violating federal legal guidelines designed to maintain probably harmful expertise from nations recognized to commit human rights abuses, assist terror or pose threats to the U.S. or its allies.

FLIR negotiated a settlement with the SEC over expenses that the corporate violated the International Corrupt Practices Act throughout a multimillion-dollar sale of safety cameras to Saudi Arabia.

It included the reward of pricey watches to Saudi officers and a free 2009 world-hopping junket, together with stops in Casablanca, Paris, Dubai, Beirut, New York and every week in Boston, the place the contingent spent about 10 hours visiting FLIR’s gear facility.

“In whole, the (Ministry of Inside) officers traveled for 20 nights on their ‘world tour,’ with airfare and luxurious lodge lodging paid by FLIR,” in accordance with an SEC stop and desist order in April 2015. “There was no enterprise objective for the stops exterior of Boston.”

The state of affairs was made worse when the FLIR representatives, with cooperation from the corporate’s finance division, doctored data and created false invoices to make it seem as if Saudi officers had paid their very own method, in accordance with SEC data.

FLIR’s settlement with the SEC additionally acknowledged spending $40,000 to woo potential clients from Saudi Arabia, together with paying for 2 New Yr celebrations in Dubai. And FLIR paid $43,000 in 2011 for Egyptian protection officers to journey to Paris and Stockholm as a part of a 14-day world tour. “Officers solely participated in official enterprise actions on 4 of these days,” in accordance with SEC data.

FLIR finally agreed to pay $9.5 million in fines for violating the International Corrupt Practices Act.

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However its troubles didn’t finish there. In April 2018 FLIR agreed to pay $30 million in fines to settle 347 violations of the Arms Export Management Act and the Worldwide Site visitors of Arms Rules that occurred over the course of a decade, pleading to 18 of them. The U.S. State Division waived half the nice, however FLIR stays on probation till subsequent April, and it should open its books to federal auditors.

The arms gross sales expenses in opposition to FLIR resulted from expertise offers with residents of 15 restricted nations, together with Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Cuba and Vietnam. The State Division’s evaluate of FLIR export licenses between 2007 and 2013 “concluded that a number of violations occurred in all 32 licenses reviewed.” Between 2012 and 2017, the State Division authorized export licenses for FLIR merchandise totaling $9.9 billion in gross sales.

FLIR can be the topic of an lively investigation by the U.S. Division of Commerce into the sale of infrared cameras, a prohibited expertise, to China, the corporate famous in a latest report back to shareholders.

Seattle spokesperson Megan Erb mentioned this historical past “had no impression on operations or knowledge for the Acyclica visitors system …”

“FLIR’s sanctions didn’t contain knowledge privateness or knowledge administration violations or considerations that may have been related to a privateness evaluate,” she mentioned.

Requested by The Seattle Instances concerning the previous infractions, Metz-Porozni, an organization spokesperson, mentioned it has “a world-class compliance program” for privateness. “FLIR has and continues to be in compliance with prevailing privateness legal guidelines, offering higher safety than is legally required,” he mentioned.

Katell, the tech ethics skilled, mentioned vetting the company duty of contractors is a necessary step that’s lacking from Seattle’s strategy of reviewing surveillance expertise.

“It’s essential that municipalities take critically the conduct of corporations. It’s like hiring an individual,” he mentioned. “You wouldn’t rent an individual who’s been convicted of fraud or espionage to be your county auditor as a result of they will be apt to interrupt belief.”

Pedestrians take photos and navigate around Pike Place Market on Thursday. Sensor surveillance technology is tracking people through their cellphones. 
(Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Pedestrians take photographs and navigate round Pike Place Market on Thursday. Sensor surveillance expertise is monitoring folks by means of their cellphones.
(Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Instances)

Extra sensors

Seattle’s dedication to Acyclica expertise is rising. A low-key announcement at a Jan. 20 Metropolis Council committee assembly revealed Division of Transportation plans to interchange its community of license-plate reader expertise with Acyclica sensors inside the yr.

The license plate readers, a community of cameras that snap photographs of passing cars, assist visitors planners gauge journey instances. The knowledge is shared with the Washington state Division of Transportation.

The Georgetown and Worldwide District neighborhoods maintain 42 p.c of the license plate readers that town plans to swap with Acyclica sensors, and are house to a excessive “proportion of deprived residents,” in accordance with town’s presentation.

Councilmember Alex Pedersen, chair of the transportation committee, mentioned town is finalizing a privateness evaluate of Acyclica, anticipated to be completed within the subsequent few months.

“Our Metropolis Council Committee might want to obtain a full evaluation not solely of the expertise itself but in addition of any troubling reviews about their dad or mum firm, in order that we be certain that metropolis authorities is working with solely trusted and dependable distributors,” he mentioned in an e mail.

Seattle had been doing enterprise with Acyclica for 3 years when it was acquired by FLIR in September 2018, simply 4 months after settling its bribery case. But the change in possession didn’t get included within the metropolis’s privateness evaluate.

FLIR now’s within the midst of a merger with one other tech agency, Teledyne. The consolidation is predicted to be accomplished this summer season.

Younger, of Cornell, doesn’t imagine Seattle must abandon its relationship with FLIR, given the funding Seattle has already made within the expertise. However the metropolis should evaluate its contractors as stridently because it evaluations itself throughout privateness evaluation, she mentioned, and will add assurances and oversight mechanisms within the contract to make sure Seattleites’ knowledge just isn’t resold.

“We’re up in opposition to this pressure the place civil servants are taking distributors at their phrase and don’t all the time have the instruments to push again,” Younger mentioned.

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