L.A. County Sheriff Is “Anonymously” Crowdscourcing Surveillance

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

“Did you witness the civil unrest during Deltopia in Isla Vista?” The folks at the Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository (LEEDIR) would like to know. And, if so, would you please “anonymously” upload any photos or video you shot with your smartphone so they could stick them in a database and pass them along to law enforcement.

LEEDIR is leading the way in anonymous crowdsourcing surveillance of people not suspected or accused of criminal activity.

The public-private partnership was born out of the Boston Marathon bombing a year ago when law enforcement was aided by photographic submissions of ordinary citizens. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department approached Culver City-based Citizen Global Inc. and Amazon Web Services to design the system.

Access to the system is free for law enforcement agencies. They are enthusiastic about the system; privacy advocates, not so much. The software is equally effective in keeping an eye on suspicious people at Occupy Wall Street gatherings.

“There's a reason that we pay professionals to work in police departments,” Nate Cardozo, a civil liberties attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told Associated Press reporter Tami Abdollah. “And there's a reason we don't crowdsource photo lineups and the like—crowds aren't good at it.”

Another EFF attorney, Jennifer Lynch, questioned whether information submitted anonymously would be admissible in court where defendants have the right to challenge evidence against them.

The answer to that last objection may be that the information is not truly anonymous. Persons uploading information can leave their names and addresses off the posting, but the app, which is downloadable at iTunes and elsewhere, requires access to GPS data and other metadata that can identify someone.

The system, which is operated by Citizen Global, is meant to be used during emergencies and is not active at all times. Law enforcement agencies are not charged for using LEEDIR if the emergency affects more than 5,000 people or covers 5 square miles and at least two agencies respond, according to KPCC.

Individual agencies are responsible for sifting through the information that pertains to their surveillance and deciding how long to store the material. There is no guarantee that the information will be deleted, although L.A. County Sheriff Commander Scott Edison told KPCC that it would jettison the material after a couple of months.

Consider the source. The Sheriff's Department is notorious for bad behavior. The U.S.  Department of Justice has conducted multiple investigations of its civil rights violations in and out of jails, and the U.S. Attorneys Office charged 18 current and former deputies in December with excessive use of force and obstruction of justice.

Last month, there was a brouhaha when it became known that the department secretly spied on the city of Compton in 2012 using a private air surveillance company. When confronted, department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida defended the effort. She told the Los Angeles Times the agency already had 20 cameras taking pictures of civilians on the ground and there was no “Big Brother” aspect to the spying because “the images were black and white” and the authorities “couldn't distinguish a man from woman or SUV from compact car.”

Presumably, the photos and videos provided through LEEDIR will be of higher quality.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Police Use New Tool to Source Crowds for Evidence (by Tami Abdollah, Associated Press)

La County Sheriff Launches App for Eyewitnesses to Share Photos/Videos of Major Emergencies (by Erika Aguilar, KPCC)

Sheriff’s Department Brings in Data Processor (by Omar Shamout, Los Angeles Business Journal)

Los Angeles Law Enforcement Looking to Crowdsource Surveillance (by Tim Cushing, Information Liberation)

La Sheriffs Launch Crowdsourced Crowd Control: Leedir, a Surveillance App that Uses Your Photos and Videos (by Xeni Jardin, BoingBoing)

L.A. County Sheriff's Department Spied on Entire City with Eye in the Sky but Kept It Secret (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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