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LAPD Uses Controversial Data Surveillance Tool to Create Massive Database of People

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  • Controversial data gathering company Palantir Technologies went public Wednesday. Leading up to this move, many reports detailed why the group is so heavily criticized.
  • One of the biggest reports came from BuzzFeed News, which obtained documents that show how officers in the Los Angeles Police Department are trained to use Palantir Gotham.
  • This tool allows officers to create a database of people who may or may not be suspected of crimes, and then search that database by name, race, gender, tattoos, people they know, and more.
  • Within the last few weeks, both Amnesty International and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have also lodged concerns of their own about Palantir, ranging from human rights violations to a lack of transparency with the public.

BuzzFeed News Report

As Palantir Technologies went public on Wednesday, so did numerous reports detailing why the data gathering and analysis company is so controversial.

One of the biggest reports came from BuzzFeed News, which obtained documents revealing how the Los Angeles Police Department used Palantir Gotham, a highly contentious law enforcement tool, to create a sweeping database. According to their report, this includes information like the names of those who have been arrested, convicted, or suspected of a crime, but goes much further. 

“Maybe a police officer was told a person knew a suspected gang member. Maybe an officer spoke to a person who lived near a crime “hot spot,” or was in the area when a crime happened. Maybe a police officer simply had a hunch. The context is immaterial,” reporter Caroline Haskins wrote. “Once the LAPD adds a name to Palantir’s database, that person becomes a data point in a massive police surveillance system.”

The LAPD uses this system in effort to quickly search for and find criminals, but it has unsurprisingly faced backlash from those who see Palantir as a privacy overreach. Some believe that, especially as the country is having conversations about shrinking police budgets, tools like this cost taxpayers too much money. Others believe the lack of transparency between the public and police departments about using Planatair and other forms of data surveillance is dangerous. 

According to BuzzFeed News, LAPD’s use of Palantir has little to no public oversight or regulation. The program “helped the LAPD construct a vast database that indiscriminately lists the names, addresses, phone numbers, license plates, friendships, romances, jobs of Angelenos — the guilty, innocent, and those in between.”

The LAPD has been using Palantir for ten years, and between 2015 and 2016, paid for it via money it received from the federal government, but it’s unclear if that is always how it has been funded. 

Palantir collects information from multiple sources, including the DMV and photos collected at traffic lights and toll booths. The database has one billion pictures of license plates from those locations so that police can see where and when your car was photographed, then click to learn more about you.

On top of this, the report notes that dozens of California police departments, sheriff’s offices, airport police, universities and school districts signed onto data sharing agreements with the LAPD between 2012 and 2017. As a result, these places have had to send daily copies of their police records, licence plate readings, and dispatch information to the LAPD so officers can put that data into Palantir. 

A document of user metrics obtained by BuzzFeed shows that as of 2017, there are 5,000 registered LAPD user accounts on Palantir, which is over 40% of the department’s officers. In 2016, LAPD ran more than 60,000 searches in support of more than 10,000 cases. 

The outlet also obtained training documents that detail specifically how officers are being instructed to use Palantir. Police can search for people not only by name, but by race, gender, gang membership, tattoos, scars, friends and family. These searches will return a list of names along with associated addresses, emails, vehicles, warrants, mugshots, surveillance pictures, and even personal connections like friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers. 

Criticisms of Palantir and Policing

One of the largest criticisms of Palantir comes from those who fear it will exacerbate the racism that already exists in policing. 

“The federal government shouldn’t be spending money on unproven surveillance software or crime prediction programs that target Black and Hispanic Americans and don’t actually reduce crime,” Senator Ron Wyden (D-Or.) said. 

Many of these concerns here are backed up by sociologist Sarah Brayne, who studied and observed how the LAPD uses data surveillance over the course of seven years. In July, she wrote about Palantir and the LAPD for the Los Angeles Times and said officers had built a “sprawling database of information.”

“In the digital age, data are a form of capital. If only the police and tech companies have access to the data and analytic software, independent evaluation of how this capital is being leveraged in law enforcement is impossible,” Brayne wrote. She also believed that there can easily be racial bias issues in the application of these tools

“Analytic software also can exacerbate inequalities under the veneer of objectivity,” she said. “Surveillance tools such as license plate readers are deployed based on past department crime statistics, which means that “predictive policing” data systems disproportionately point to Black and brown people and neighborhoods for heavier policing and future data gathering.”

Controversies as Palantir Goes Public

Palantir was started by its CEO Alex Karp and a handful of other founders, including Peter Thiel. In addition to being used by the LAPD, it has also been used by the New York Police Department, the CIA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and most recently, by the Department of Health and Human Services for data processing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

BuzzFeed’s report exposing its use in the LAPD is just the latest piece of criticism it has faced heading into its move to go public. Amnesty International put out a release accusing Palantir of human rights abuses, specifically citing its relationship with ICE. 

“Palantir touts its ethical commitments, saying it will never work with regimes that abuse human rights abroad. This is deeply ironic, given the company’s willingness stateside to work directly with ICE, which has used its technology to execute harmful policies that target migrants and asylum-seekers,” wrote Michael Kleinman, the Director of Amnesty International’s Silicon Valley Initiative.

According to Amnesty International, ICE has used Palantir to arrest parents and caregivers of unaccompanied children and to plan mass riads, leading to children being separated from their caregivers. Palantir allows ICE to identify, share information on, investigate, and track migrants and asylum seekers, which aids operations like these. 

Palantir also faced criticism earlier this month from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Ny.) who wrote the Securities and Exchange Commission detailing her concerns about Palantir going public. In a letter, she claimed that the company was not transparent enough with the public. 

“Palantir reports several pieces of information about its company – and omits others – that we believe require further disclosure and examination, as they present material risks of which potential investors should be aware and national security concerns of which the public should be aware,” she wrote. 

Ocasio-Cortez highlighted several areas of concern, including the fact that Palantir has worked with foreign governments known to engage in corrupt practices and human rights violations, their failure to provide adequate information about one of its board members, and the potential data security implications of its relationship with HHS could have. 

“Palantir must provide greater transparency to potential investors about the data protections or lack thereof associated with its government contracts, and further information about the U.S. and non-U.S. government entities for which it is working on data related to the COVID-19 crisis,” she wrote. “This is of paramount importance to investors and the public, as Palantir Chief Operating Office Shyam Sankar recently characterized the company’s work for multiple governments to manage and process data in response to the COVID-19 crisis as the new “driving thrust of the company.”

See what others are saying: (BuzzFeed News) (Business Insider) (Washington Post)

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Meta Reinstates Trump on Facebook and Instagram

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The company, which banned the former president two years ago for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, now says the risk to public safety has “sufficiently receded.” 


Meta Ends Suspension

Meta announced Wednesday that it will reinstate the Facebook and Instagram accounts of former President Donald Trump, just two years after he was banned for using the platforms to incite a violent insurrection.

In a blog post, the company said the suspensions would be lifted “in the coming weeks” but with “new guardrails in place to deter repeat offenses.”

Specifically, Meta stated that due to Trump’s violations of its Community Standards, he will face “heightened penalties for repeat offenses” under new protocols for “public figures whose accounts are reinstated from suspensions related to civil unrest.”

“In the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation,” the blog post continued.

The company also noted its updated protocols address content that doesn’t violate its Community Standards but “contributes to the sort of risk that materialized on January 6, such as content that delegitimizes an upcoming election or is related to QAnon.”

However, unlike direct violations, that content would have its distribution limited, but it would not be taken down. As a penalty for repeat offenses, Meta says it “may temporarily restrict access to […] advertising tools.”

As far as why the company is doing this, it explained that it assessed whether or not to extend the “unprecedented” two-year suspension it placed on Trump back in January of 2021 and determined that the risk to public safety had “sufficiently receded.”

Meta also argued that social media is “rooted in the belief that open debate and the free flow of ideas are important values” and it does not want to “get in the way of open, public and democratic debate.”

“The public should be able to hear what their politicians are saying — the good, the bad and the ugly — so that they can make informed choices at the ballot box,” the tech giant added.

Response

Meta’s decision prompted widespread backlash from many people who argue the former president has clearly not learned from the past because he continues to share lies about the election, conspiracy theories, and other incendiary language on Truth Social.

“Trump incited an insurrection. And tried to stop the peaceful transfer of power,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Ca.) tweeted. “He’s shown no remorse. No contrition. Giving him back access to a social media platform to spread his lies and demagoguery is dangerous. @facebook caved, giving him a platform to do more harm.”

According to estimates last month by the advocacy groups Accountable Tech and Media Matters for America, over 350 of Trump’s posts on the platform would have explicitly violated Facebook’s policies against QAnon content, election claims, and harassment of marginalized groups.

“Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to reinstate Trump’s accounts is a prime example of putting profits above people’s safety,”  NAACP President Derrick Johnson told NPR

“It’s quite astonishing that one can spew hatred, fuel conspiracies, and incite a violent insurrection at our nation’s Capitol building, and Mark Zuckerberg still believes that is not enough to remove someone from his platforms.”

However, on the other side, many conservatives and Trump supporters have cheered the move as a win for free speech.

Others, like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Oh.) also asserted that Trump “shouldn’t have been banned in the first place. Can’t happen again.”

Trump himself echoed that point on in a post on Truth Social, where he claimed Facebook has lost billions of dollars both removing and reinstating him.

Such a thing should never again happen to a sitting President, or anybody else who is not deserving of retribution! THANK YOU TO TRUTH SOCIAL FOR DOING SUCH AN INCREDIBLE JOB. YOUR GROWTH IS OUTSTANDING, AND FUTURE UNLIMITED!!!” he continued. 

The question that remains, however, is whether Trump will actually go back to Facebook or Instagram. As many have noted, the two were never his main platforms. Twitter was always been his preferred outlet, and while Elon Musk reinstated his account some time ago, he has not been posting on the site.

There is also the question of how Truth Social — which Trump created and put millions of dollars into — would survive if he went back to Meta’s platforms. The company is already struggling financially, and as Axios notes, if Trump moves back, it signals to investors that he is not confident in the company.

On the other hand, Trump’s lawyers formally petitioned Meta to reinstate him, which could indicate that this goes beyond just a symbolic win and is something he actually wants. Additionally, if he were to start engaging on Facebook and Instagram again, it would immediately give him access to his over 57 million followers across the two platforms while he continues his 2024 presidential campaign.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (Axios) (The New York Times)

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Meta Encouraged to Change Nudity Policy in Potential Win For Free The Nipple Movement

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The company’s oversight board said Meta’s current rules are too confusing to follow, and new guidelines should be developed to “respect international human rights standards.”


Rules Based in “A Binary View of Gender”

In a move many have described as a big step for Free The Nipple advocates, Meta’s oversight board released a decision Tuesday encouraging the company to modify its nudity and sexual activity policies so that social media users are treated “without discrimination on the basis of sex or gender.”

The board—which consists of lawyers, journalists, and academics—said the parent company of Facebook and Instagram should change its guidelines “so that it is governed by clear criteria that respect international human rights standards.”

Its decision came after a transgender and nonbinary couple had two different posts removed for alleged violations of Meta’s Sexual Solicitation Community Standard. Both posts included images of the couple bare-chested with their nipples covered along with captions discussing transgender healthcare, as they were fundraising for one of them to undergo top surgery.

Both posts, one from 2021 and another from 2022, were taken down after users reported it and Meta’s own automated system flagged it. The posts were restored after an appeal, but the oversight board stated that their initial removal highlights faults in the company’s policies. 

“Removing these posts is not in line with Meta’s Community Standards, values or human rights responsibilities,” the board said in its decision, 

According to the board, Meta’s sexual solicitation policy is too broad and creates confusion for social media users. The board also said the policy is “based on a binary view of gender and a distinction between male and female bodies.

“Such an approach makes it unclear how the rules apply to intersex, non-binary and transgender people, and requires reviewers to make rapid and subjective assessments of sex and gender, which is not practical when moderating content at scale,” the decision continued. 

Free the Nipple Movement

The board stated that the rules get especially confusing regarding female nipples, “particularly as they apply to transgender and non-binary people.”

While there are exceptions to Meta’s rules, including posts in medical or health contexts, the board said that these exceptions are “often convoluted and poorly defined.” 

“The lack of clarity inherent in this policy creates uncertainty for users and reviewers, and makes it unworkable in practice,” the decision said. 

The board’s recommended that Meta change how it manages nudity on its platforms. The group also requested that Meta provide more details regarding what content specifically violates its Sexual Solicitation Community Standard. 

For over a decade, Meta’s nudity policies have been condemned by many activists and users for strictly censoring female bodies. The Free the Nipple movement was created to combat rules that prevent users from sharing images of a bare female chest, but still allow men to freely post topless photos of themselves. 

Big names including Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Florence Pugh have advocated for Free the Nipple.
Meta now has 60 days to respond to the board’s recommendations. In a statement to the New York Post, a spokesperson for the company said Meta is “constantly evaluating our policies to help make our platforms safer for everyone.”

See What Others Are Saying: (Mashable) (The New York Post) (Oversight Committee Decision)

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Amazon Labor Union Receives Official Union Certification

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The company already plans to appeal the decision.


Amazon Labor Union’s Victory 

The National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday certified the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) Staten Island election from April, despite Amazon’s objections. 

After Staten Island staffers won the vote to unionize by 500 votes in the spring of 2022, Amazon quickly filed a slew of objections, claiming that the ALU had improperly influenced the election. Amazon pushed for the results to be overturned. 

Now, the National Labor Relations Board has dismissed Amazon’s allegations and certified the election. This certification gives legitimacy to the ALU and puts Amazon in a position to be penalized should they decide not to bargain with the union in good faith. 

“We’re demanding that Amazon now, after certification, meet and bargain with us,” ALU attorney Seth Goldstein said to Motherboard regarding the certification. “We’re demanding bargaining, and if we need to, we’re going to move to get a court order enforcing our bargaining rights. It’s outrageous that they’ve been violating federal labor while they continue to do so.”

Negotiate or Appeal 

Amazon has until Jan. 25 to begin bargaining with the ALU, or the online retailer can appeal the decision by the same deadline. The company has already announced its plan to appeal. 

“As we’ve said since the beginning, we don’t believe this election process was fair, legitimate, or representative of the majority of what our team wants,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel, said in a statement.

This win comes after two recent defeats in ALU’s unionization efforts. The union lost an election at a facility in Albany and another in Staten Island. 

ALU’s director Chris Smalls told Yahoo! Finance that he is unconcerned about these losses.

“For us, whatever campaign is ready to go, the Amazon Labor Union is going to throw their support behind it, no matter what…We know that it’s going to take collective action for Amazon to come to the table,” he told the outlet. “So, for us, it’s never unsuccessful. These are growing pains, and we’re going to fight and continue to grow.”

See what others are saying: (Vice) (NPR) (Bloomberg)

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