In 2007, as it pushed to build a state-of-the-art surveillance facility, the Los Angeles Police Department cast an acquisitive eye on software being developed by Palantir, a startup funded in part by the Central Intelligence Agency’s venture capital arm.
Originally designed for spy agencies, Palantir’s technology allowed users to track individuals with unprecedented reach, connecting information from conventional sources like crime reports with more controversial data gathered by surveillance cameras and license plate readers that automatically, and indiscriminately, photographed passing cars.
The LAPD could have used a small portion of its multibillion-dollar annual budget to purchase the software, but that would have meant going through a year-long process requiring public meetings, approval from the City Council, and, in some cases, competitive bidding.
There was a quicker, quieter way to get the software: as a gift from the Los Angeles Police Foundation, a private charity. In November 2007, at the behest of then Police Chief William Bratton, the foundation approached Target Corp., which contributed $200,000 to buy the software, said the foundation’s executive director, Cecilia Glassman, in an interview. Then the foundation donated it to the police department.
Across the nation, private foundations are increasingly being tapped to provide police with technology and weaponry that—were it purchased with public money—would come under far closer scrutiny.
In Los Angeles, foundation money has been used to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of license plate readers, which were the subject of a civil-rights lawsuit filed against the region’s law enforcement agencies by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (A judge rejected the groups’ claims earlier this year.)
Private funds also have been used to upgrade “Stingray” devices, which have triggered debate in numerous jurisdictions because they vacuum up records of cellphone metadata, calls, text messages, and data transfers over a half-mile radius.
Should this continue and does there need to be more regulatory oversight in police donations?